The Slip-Slide of the Zipper through History

Why is it that we so often take the smallest, everyday things for granted? Take the zipper, for instance. It is nowadays the basic utensil for dressing and undressing ourselves, slip-sliding us out of our daily costumes without being given a second thought! Have we ever really thought about where it came from, who invented it, and how it snaked into all our lives? I bet not! It’s alright though – I’m here to make the obvious intriguing again…

The zip had an uphill struggle shifting its status from curiosity to necessity. It wasn’t easy; but then, no success story ever is! Robert Friedel explains in his study Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty how the first person to invent the first stages of the zipper was an American man called Whitcomb Judson who received a patent for his “shoe fasteners” in 1893. However he wasn’t actually interested in “shoe fasteners” and was messing around with the invention merely for his amusement. His real goal was to create a pneumatic street railway, remaining his focus until he died in 1909. Approximately two decades after Whitcomb’s prototype, the modern version of our zipper was born in the hands of Gideon Sundback, who essentially just came in with minor improvements; you could say he took Whitcomb’s original version, gave it a cheap facelift and exhibited it proudly as his own. One might assume that the invention was welcomed with a marching band, but I can assure you that wasn’t the case. Once again the poor little zip was left alone to grit its teeth unwatched and unwanted. Back then zippers were used mainly for functional military clothing during World War I and didn’t slip up to real success until 1923 or become imbued with the sensual insinuations of today until much after that.

In the 1950s the zipper – simultaneously with the leather jacket – finally had its boom. “Ton up kids” – who drove around the town with their motorcycles – became the first ones to really adopt the ‘bad boy’ look, their jackets decorated with at least a zipper or two. Rock ’n’ roll was the way to go, Elvis and the likes became ambassadors of the style. Actor Marlon Brando, the extremely popular wet-dream of his generation won popularity after staring in The Wild One. There he was, wearing a black leather jacket with six zippers altogether! Worth mentioning is also the inimitable James Dean. The zipper had its centre stage moment in his most memorable film, “Rebel Without a Cause” even if it wasn’t on leather. The red blouson jacket he wore was zipped halfway down (or, some could say, up), giving thousands of women in the 50s – and truthfully, even today – fantasies about unzipping the whole thing.

Typical to fashion is that it keeps evolving. This wily zip of ours continued to descend through the decades, ever evolving. From Rock’ n’ roll staple it went to ladies dress, bringing a role reversal to its sexual appeal. Zippers were traditionally placed on the back of a dress, so a woman couldn’t get ready without the help of a partner. For a while zippers made dressing and undressing a dual chore… or a pleasurable dance.

Perhaps the most radical fashion creation based around the zip is the “Zipper Dress” designed in 2009 by Chilean born Sebastian Errazuriz’s. He stated in The Telegraph interview the same year that the influence behind the idea was “the constant changes and demands that fashion establishes every season”. The piece could be altered in every imaginable way by the wearer. Now isn’t that clever? The zipper has grown from ancillary to the nucleus of the garment! It’s quite like a promotion!

Errazuriz is not the only designer playing about with zips. Alexander Wang’s A/W14 collection for Balenciaga and Miu Miu’s A/W13 collections wove their designs around zips, with Miu Miu featuring the double zipper, playfully opening from both ends, something now commonly seen used by designers from Roland Mouret to Ted Baker.

Finally, please don’t run away thinking the zipper’s rise was limited to just fashion! The cover of The Rolling Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers album was a close-up of a man’s crotch. The original vinyl cover actually cheekily placed a real zipper on the cover and once unzipped by the music fan – and you know you would have unzipped – a pair of mock white cotton briefs stamped with Andy Warhol’s name were revealed, shocking! Audacious! It’s said Andy Warhol definitely came up with the idea, but who the model was for the jeans has remained music history mystery.

So the zipper’s story really is a rags to riches one; created as a puny side project, it has become an essential part of our daily routine and rubs shoulders with celebrities and common man alike! I think a “Zip zip, hooray!” is in order.

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