An Everyday Machine: The Zipper, Technology and Fashion Change

An Everyday Machine: The Zipper, Technology and Fashion Change

We all know that catastrophic moment when the slider of our zipper derails and ends up on one side of the track, or worse: in our hands. It is equally frustrating when a piece of fabric from another garment or from the surrounding seam gets caught in the zipper’s teeth. In his book Zipper: An Exploration of Novelty, Robert Friedel describes the zipper as a machine – a carefully fitted piece of “metal and plastic that must move in close coordination under our control to exert forces to accomplish a simple but nevertheless sometimes vital task.” As Friedel argues, zippers are perhaps the first machines we all learn to master as a child. We tend to forget about our zippers until they malfunction. This illustrates that the zipper is an invisible but inescapable part of our daily life, and therefore this blogpost is dedicated to that everyday machine.

Invention and Development of the Zipper

To begin from the start: the zipper (also: ‘zip,’ ‘zip fastener,’ or ‘slide fastener’) is a fastening device used in garments as an alternative to other types of fastenings such as buttons, hooks and eyes, or snap fasteners. The first ‘primitive’ zipper was invented in the United States in the early 1890s by the traveling salesman Whitcomb Judson, who tried to patent his idea for a ‘Clasp Locker or Unlocker’ for shoes in 1891. His patent claimed that shoe fastenings were “equally applicable for fastening gloves, mail-bags and generally, wherever it is desired to detachably connect a pair of adjacent flexible parts.” In 1893, this patent was granted, and the Universal Fastener Company was established in Chicago, Illinois.

Whitcomb Judson’s patent for a Shoe Fastening’ (1893)

Judson further developed his idea of an ‘automatic hook-and-eye,’ and renamed the company’s name to the Automatic Hook and Eye Company. One of the zippers that was developed, the ‘C-curity’ fastener (1902), had hooks on one side that were opposed by eyes on the other. It was promoted as a novelty, with advertisements that assured: “A pull and it’s done. No more open skirts… Your skirt is always securely and neatly fastened.” But this zipper did not function as well as promised and had to be perfected.

The ‘modern’ zipper was invented in 1913 by the Swedish-American electrical engineer Gideon Sundback, who concluded that the hook-and-eye model was not suitable for any kind of automatic fastener. Sundback introduced his ‘Hookless Fastener’ – which resembles the metal zipper we know today – and the Universal Fastener Company subsequently changed its name into the Hookless Fastener Company. The first zippers were mostly used in smaller items or garments, such as gloves or handbags. However, zippers did not enjoy a wide popularity at first, as both designers and makers of garments found them difficult to work with, and the zippers were relatively expensive in comparison to the other types of fasteners they had to replace.

Zipper Fashion

It was only in the 1930s that the zipper was gradually accepted as an element of both men’s and women’s clothing. This was stimulated by developments in the manufacturing of lighter metal and plastic zippers. Full acceptance of the zipper however depended upon its appearance in women’s high fashion collections. The Anglo-American couturier Charles James was among the first fashion designers to adopt and convert the zipper into a design feature. His Taxi dress (ca. 1932) featured a long zipper covered with an obvious placket that spiralled around the body.

Charles James, Taxi, ca. 1932, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Always eager to experiment with new materials and technologies, Parisian designer Elsa Schiaparelli extensively used zippers not merely as closures but as colourful ornaments, for instance in her Winter 1935-36 collection. In her autobiography Shocking Life, ‘Schiap’ boasted that what had upset the “poor, breathless reporters” the most that season, was her daring, and as she herself claimed ‘first’ use of the zipper: “Not only did [zippers] appear for the first time but in the most unexpected places, even on evening clothes. The whole collection was full of them. Astounded buyers bought and bought. They had come prepared for every kind of strange button. But they were not prepared for zips.”

Zippered Up Tight: The Magic of the Zipper

Zippers began to appear widely in high fashion collections in 1937 along with the narrower silhouette that was fashionable that year. The Hookless Fastener Company, which had changed its name to Talon Inc. in early 1937, advertised in Vogue’s June 1937 issue: “Sleekness is the thing for summer – Talon fastener is the thing for sleekness”.

And in its 8 November 1937 issue, LIFE reported that “Now Everything’s Zippers.” The magazine commented that in connection to that year’s fashionable narrow silhouettes, fashion writers had invented a new “mumbo jumbo”, as terms such as “pencil-slim,” “molded silhouette” and “poured-in look” had become stock phrases. “Behind them all was the suggestion that by the magic of the zipper, plumpish women could attain a svelte figure”. The article featured a photograph of New York socialite Nancy White wearing a dressy, fox-trimmed ‘Zipper Coat.’ The winter coat was a Lord & Taylor copy of a design by Edward Molyneux, shown in Paris in early August 1937, that was claimed to have started a vogue for full-length zippers on coats and dresses. Therefore, by the late 1930s, the fashion world seemed to be finally ready for the ‘magic of the zipper.’

By Nelleke Honcoop

Sources and further reading:

“Advertisement: Hookless Fastener Co. (Hookless Fastener Co.)”, Vogue 89, no. 11 (01 June 1937): 12-13. ProQuest: The Vogue Archive.

Friedel, Robert. Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty. London and New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.

James, Charles. Taxi, ca. 1932, wool and synthetic, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Accessed 17 February 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/171965.

Judson, Whitcomb. Patent for Shoe Fastening (Patent No. 504,037).Patented 29 August 1893 US504037A. United States Patent Office.

“Now Everything’s Zippers: Style Demand Outruns the Supply”, LIFE 3, no. 19 (8 November 1937): 54-56.

Schiaparelli, Elsa. Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli. [J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1954]. London: V&A Publications, 2007, pp. 87-88.

Tortora, Phyllis G. Dress, Fashion and Technology:  From Prehistory to the Present. Dress, Body, Culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Brazilian Tropicalia Fashions Embedded in Life Magazine, November 1971

liz july pic

I recently came across an interesting photograph that was published in Life magazine on 12 November 1971, accompanying an article written and photographed by John Dominis and entitled ‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon.’ The article concerned the building of the Trans-Amazonian highway, a 4,000km road conceived of to unify Northern Brazil, which opened in September 1972 and ran through the Brazilian states of Paraiba, Ceara, Piaui, Maranhao, Tocantins, Para and Amazonas. In the top-left hand corner of the article, an image captured five Brazilian women straightforwardly in the frame, against a dull background of clouded sky, a wooden fence disappearing into the distance, and the green-and-white facade of a building. The caption that accompanied it read: ‘towns along the road are booming with such by-products of civilization as electricity and bar girls. On Saturday, hundreds of workers come into Altamira, above. Girls entertain the men for about $3 each.’ A closer examination of the photograph made me realise how simplified this description was in anchoring the meaning of the photograph, since it understood the women solely in terms of their availability as objects of a male gaze, and refused to acknowledge the layers of meaning embedded within their appearance as created by their fashionable ensembles.

Looking more closely, I saw that each subject met the photographer’s gaze directly, and enacted a variety of poses, from straightforwardly presenting the body to the gaze that scrutinizes them, to more stylised and performative fashion stances that revealed an uncovered thigh and high-heeled sandal. Their clothing is a combination of white nylon knee-high socks worn with white shoes, white and pink ankle-length dresses with thigh-high slits, and hot pants and overcoats in eye-popping psychedelic printed fabrics, all of which stand out against the general degradation of their arid surroundings. The clashing colours and swirling patterns that adorn three of the women’s outfits demonstrate the influence of contemporary Western-style hippie fashions, with their penchant for exposing the body, vibrant colours and mismatched prints and styles. Yet this was not a simplistic demonstration of a one-directional homogenisation of clothing that had travelled to Brazil from Western Europe and North America. This is because their dress also demonstrated the influence of the left-wing Brazilian artistic movement named Tropicalia, which was articulated as a response in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the repressive dictatorship that occurred in Brazil from 1964-1985. The Tropicalists re-defined Brazilian fashion, art and music by appropriating elements of Western-style hippie fashion, such as psychedelic fabrics, mini-skirts, hot pants and micro dresses, which exposed legs and thighs, and using it to demonstrate their sartorial freedom under rigid political control. Under Tropicalia, the meanings of hippie fashion, although still remaining non-conformist and rebellious, took on new meanings relevant to their Brazilian context. The women in this photograph were not part of the Tropicalist movement, but their clothing shows how elements of these popular political fashions filtered through into everyday dress worn in Brazil.

Taking all these sartorial references into account in our understanding of the image enables us to read it against the grain, and understand the women no longer as merely passive objects of a presumed male gaze, but active fashion consumers who contributed to the construction of their own identities through dress. That Life omitted to draw attention to the women’s dress can be understood as part of a broader omission within the Associated Press, which failed to outline the human rights atrocities taking place under a right-wing regime that was politically aligned to the Cold War interests of the United States.

 

Sources

John Dominis,‘Taming the Green Hell: Brazil Rams a Highway Through The Wild Amazon’, Life, pp. 26-31.