Now & Then: The History of the Zipper

Unzipping the floodgates: From a closure to decorative fashion statement, the zipper changed the course of fashion history. Shown here, Balmain’s SS 2010 zipper jacket.

Instantly recognizable by their exposed back zipper, Victoria Beckham’s signature bodycon dresses continue to be the toast of the town. The sexy design detail with little teeth has been giving Beckham’s otherwise demure mid-calf length dresses some serious bite since she launched at New York’s Fashion Week in 2009.

Victoria Beckham’s signature figure-flattering dresses with exposed zipper. 

As erotic a notion as, well, sewing notions can be, the zip and its semi-scandalous potential for exposing whatever is being hidden meant that it wasn’t until the late 1930s that the invention caught on. The popular name “zipper” was also a slow starter.

3.1 Phillip Lim’s recycled zipper dress kicked off the trend for Spring/Summer 2009. The black dress with golden meandering detailing was eco-friendly, made of a natural hemp and silk blend, hand dyed and adorned in recycled zippers and surplus remnants.

Closures prior to the zipper were limited to laces and buttons until 1851 when Elias Howe applied for a patent for his invention, the “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.” Due to design flaws and the success of another of his inventions, the sewing machine, he did not attempt to seriously market the product. In 1914, Gideon Sundback doubled the number of teeth per inch of Howe’s version, creating the “Separable Fastener.” And then an improved version, called the “Hookless Hooker.” The hardware finally got its familiar name in1923, when B. F. Goodrich Company wanted to improve on the standard boot. It introduced the “Zipper Boot,” and the familiar name stuck.

Proving every thing old is new again… Elsa Schiaparelli created the first clothes with visible zippers in 1935. This Schiaparelli taffeta evening gown incorporates a decorative YKK plastic zipper placed diagonally on the front of the skirt.

Ever wondered why the initials YKK are stamped on your zipper? The YKK stands for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha. In 1934 Tadao Yoshida founded Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha or Yoshida Industries Limited.  YKK remains the world’s foremost zipper manufacturer, making about 90% of all zippers in over 206 facilities in 52 countries. Their largest factory in Georgia makes over 7 million zippers per day.

An ad for Talon nylon zippers first launched in 1960.

Mr. Yoshida endeavored to create the best zippers in the world, basing his company on the Zen principle of the “Cycle of Goodness”, as he called it.  Namely, “No one prospers unless he renders benefit to others.”  Thanks to his mass manufacturing strategy and innovations like using DuPont nylon in the 1960s to replace the metal models (that often rusted and stuck), the zipper has become a part of all of our lives.

The Rolling Stones put a zip that works on the cover of their 1971 album Sticky Fingers created by Andy Warhol.

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: The History of Fashion Media

Now & Then: The History of the Bikini

Now & Then: The History of the White Wedding Dress

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.


Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.