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Iconic Zipper Moments from Fashion History

Posted Friday, February 23, 2024

Iconic Zipper Moments from Fashion History

Zippers are a common part of our clothing that we use pretty much every day. As we discuss in a previous post, zippers have only been around for just over a century. Despite this short history, zippers have been involved in some important moments in fashion.


Whether it’s their launch on the runway, their use in haute couture, or the role they played in women’s suffrage, zippers have been surprisingly important. Let’s take a look at some of the most important zipper moments from history.


Zippers’ Launch into Fashion


Up until the 1930s, zippers were something of a background item in clothing. Mainly reserved for gloves and handbags, the idea of using them on clothes seemed a bit alien. After all, clothes had buttons and ties, so why would they need zippers?


This changed in 1932 when Charles James debuted his Taxi dress. Along with being the first dress to be sold in a cellophane package, it was also the first high fashion item to feature an obvious zipper. The zipper spiraled around the body to fasten the dress together and was covered by a large placket.


Next came Elsa Schiaparelli, widely known for her surrealist and, at the time, shocking couture. In her Winter 35-36 collection, she featured contrast zippers as design elements rather than just functional closures. This was a major step in high fashion, as the zip was largely considered an accessory item.


Shaping Fashion History


These early moves by high fashion designers started a snowball effect, as is often the case. Zippers became the next big thing in 1937, featuring in Vogue and LIFE magazines. You could find them on dresses, coats, men’s trousers, and just about every other item that need a closure.


It was around this time that women’s fashion moved away from the bulkier silhouettes of the early 20th century. Although this had started in the 1920s with the flapper movement, the late-30s saw a move towards sleek dresses and fitted tops, going one step further than the baggy dresses of the 20s. And one small item was instrumental in making this happen: the zipper.


The trend of the late-30s was the pencil slim or “poured in” look: long, fitted skirts and dresses that hugged the frame. This was far easier to achieve with the zipper than with buttons or ties because it allowed for the use of stretchy materials and tighter cuts without sacrificing shape.


Zippers played more of a background role in the 1940s. Although they were more commonly used for dresses and trousers, they had become mainstream enough by this point that they didn’t appear in high fashion pieces in quite the same way. Center back zippers became more popular on dresses, but this didn’t become universal until around the 1970s.


A Return to High Fashion


In the 1960s and 70s, zippers continued to play a functional role more so than a fashionable one. Of course, we can’t talk about zippers in fashion in the 1970s without considering the punk movement. Spearheaded by Vivienne Westwood, the punk movement was one of the most revolutionary shifts in the fashion industry.


There are many different ways to define punk fashion, but most would classify it as leather jackets, denim, military boots, and lots of metal. Zippers play an important role in these items, and were often used on leather jackets as accessories as much as functional elements. The same is true of bondage trousers, which have loads of extra zippers on them.


Punk and metal fashion continued into the 1980s, where neon also took over. Again, in the 80s, we see zippers fall back into a functional role. The rise of parachute pants, overalls, and big jackets all required zippers. But during this period, they were once again seen as a necessity rather than a point of interest.


We can see evidence for this in the fact that zippers were often covered by plackets. A placket is the piece of fabric that hides an opening on clothing, whether a zipper, pocket, or buttons. Its purpose is simply to cover the opening or fastening, implying that the zipper, for example, isn’t meant to be seen.


Embracing the Zipper


In the late 2000s, the zipper came back with a vengeance through a trend that some may want to forget: the exposed contrast zipper. Exposed zippers were nothing new – they gained popularity in the 40s and 50s as detail elements. However, those who can think back to 2009 may remember the trend of exposed zippers being put on everything.


We saw practical zippers moving from the back to the front of dresses and being fitted on contrast paneling. Think black zippers on white tops, silver on colors, and pretty much any other contrast that comes to mind.


Another important factor that played a role was the rise in biker and leather fashion, which combined nicely with the focus on exposed and contrasting zippers. Many of us can probably remember the spiral-style zippers that would run up a pair of black leather boots, or all the non-functioning zippers sewn into our leather jackets.


The exposed zipper trend went away in high fashion almost as quickly as it came about. However, it remained a staple in some circles, mainly thanks to the contrasting element of interest it could easily add to an otherwise plain item.


Of course, zippers have continued to play an important role in streetwear fashion due to its focus on hoodies, varsity jackets, cargo pants, and more. High fashion dips in and out of its interest in streetwear, but there are plenty of people who maintain enough interest to keep it alive.


What is the Future of the Zipper?


So, what role will the zipper play in high fashion in the coming years? Well FW23 saw a return of the exposed zipper, except this time there was a focus on chic. Large, metallic zippers popped up on several runways, and will likely continue to do so in the future.


Nowadays, we have a lot more flexibility over the colors and materials we can use to make zippers. This gives designers so many more options for how they use zippers in their clothing, allowing us to move way beyond zippers as just a functional element.


As for what trends we might see come around in the future, who can say? There’s so much that can be done with zippers, and the high fashion industry is always full of surprises!

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