The First Use of a Zipper in Fashion?

Most of you know by now that I approach fashion as an historian, rather than, say as a designer or a marketer.  My BA is in American history, and the study of it has been a life-long passion.  My recreational reading is mainly books on history, or biographies or primary source material.  One thing I learned many years ago at the university was to always, always question the sources.

I’ve been reading M D C Crawford’s, Ways of Fashion, which was published in 1941.  This book is just the sort of thing I love; it’s full of information about and interviews with the designers of the day.  I was just finishing it up with a chapter called “The American Way.”  In that chapter, Crawford quotes Louise Barnes Gallagher at length.  Ms. Gallagher makes a very startling statement:

I am credited with the first ensembles, and I introduced the zipper in 1922. For two years the Talon Company confined it to me for women’s clothes.

I’m going to ignore the ensembles statement, but the part about the zipper is pretty stunning news to me.  There is a bit of controversy concerning the invention of the zipper, but you can see by the patent I’ve shown above that Gideon Sundback submitted his design for a zipper in 1914, and it was approved in 1917.  His design is considered by many to be the first modern zipper.   He was working for the Hookless Fastener Company, the company that later became Talon Zippers.

In the early days of the zipper, or the slide fastener as it was often called, the main use for it was on rubber galoshes.  You pretty much do not see any mention of the use of zippers in fashion until Elsa Schiaparelli used them in her 1935 winter collection.  The plastic zippers were not concealed in any way, becoming a design element in the garment, and they were widely discussed as being quite avant garde.

They didn’t stay that way, of course.  Here’s my 1937ish tennis dress with a non-concealed zipper, a la Schiaparelli.

So what about Ms. Gallagher’s claim to be using zippers in her clothing in 1922?   Whenever someone says they have a 1920s dress and then they say it has a zipper, one immediately knows that the dress is not 1920s at all – that it is probably a 1960s dress.  The possibility of a 1922 woman’s garment containing a zipper is just not in the realm of possibilities, but yet, there is Ms. Gallagher’s statement.

It is possible that this is a writing and editing mistake, but even if she meant 1932, that year is also early to see a zipper  in a woman’s garment.  And if it was a mistake, it went uncorrected in the 1948 edition of the book.   Perhaps Gallagher’s memory is faulty, but remember, this was written in 1941 when she was in her 40s.  It was not the memory of an old woman.

So, what’s the earliest you have seen zippers in women’s clothing?  Do you think it is possible that Gallagher was putting zippers in clothing in 1922?

31 Comments

Filed under Curiosities

31 responses to “The First Use of a Zipper in Fashion?

  1. Oh this is fascinating! Thank you for sharing!

    I don’t own or even really get a chance to look at garments that are earlier than the 1940s. On a rare occasion I’ll stumble across a 1930s or 1920s garment, but they tend to have button closers if any at all. So I can’t really answer your first question, however I think the possibility exists for the zippers to be in garments of Gallagher’s. Maybe she produced some prototype garments, and possibly the zipper was found to be too expensive at the time?

    Like

  2. Interesting!

    History is full of the wrong people getting credit for having a new idea/invention simply because they aren’t as famous as the person who makes it popular. So who knows? It seems entirely possible that the zipper could be in 20’s clothing to me.

    Like

  3. In 30 years of handling vintage and antique clothing, with a lot of 1920s garments in there, I have never seen a zipper in a 1920s dress. Maybe 1932, but not 1922. I have seen underbodices and hooks and bars, slip over the head with no fasteners at all, and neck or shoulder closures with left side snaps or hooks. But no zippers.

    Like

  4. Thanks for posting this, Lizzie – it’s something I question a lot when I go vintage hunting/shopping. I have seen 1930s dresses with zippers and wondered approximately when in the ’30s it could have been since one normally sees snaps or buttons even during this period. I’ll use ‘1935’ and after as a guide for dating the item.

    Like

  5. Hi! Interesting Post!

    The zipper, as I know it, was invented by an electrical engineer Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback from Sweden and the patent was issued in his name in 1917.

    Correct me if I am wrong about this?

    Like

  6. I have seen several late 30s dress with zips and also home sewing dress patterns from about 1937 onwards with zips in england.

    Like

  7. I know it’s drama and not real, but they were used in the House of Elliot at the end of the 20s.

    Like

  8. Does Gallagher tell where she set those early zips? I’m wondering if they were concealed or exposed. Also, don’t I remember from somewhere that those first zips didn’t really stay closed, and tended to slid back down? Sounds like a dress with a zipper that would have been ripped out.

    Like

    • I can answer my own question: in a 1940 newspaper article she is credited with “firsts”, and along with ‘ensembles’ they include “zippers used in plackets”. (but no year is given for that innovation)

      Like

      • That’s interesting as well. “in plackets” suggests that the zipper would be in the side – not what one would see in a 1922 construction with all those interior hooks and snaps that one usually sees.

        Like

  9. Lynne

    Lizzie, I looked for an answer to your interesting question about the earliest appearance of zippers and I found a few 1920s references:

    (1925) “The zipper fastening which started out on tobacco pouches and passed to golf and traveling bags, galoshes, and dresses, now have been utilized on gloves. The newest of the fairly long, loose cuffed band coverings are fastened with the zipper clasp, which makes it unnecessary to fumble with buttons or refractory clasps.”

    (1926) “In London just now when a young woman desires something to counterbalance hours spent in steam heated room, she says she needs a “bit of ekker,” What she means is exercise and to take it she has adopted the two piece sport suit with a tweed skirt and a silk blouse fastened down the front with a zipper fastening”

    (1926) I found a sketch (can I add images here?) of a “new beach shoe, popular for its bright colors” with a zipper down the front and “made of satin with buckskin trimming and zipper fastening.”

    (1927) An ad for “Wool shirts” described them as “warm, durable…ideal for the cold winter days. Zipper fronts. Value $7.50; Closeout price $5.00”

    (1929) An article on life in New York described “Zipper raincoats. Taxicab full of revelers…”

    (1930) I found sketch of a sailor-style blouse with a zipper down the back.

    Like

  10. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the term “zipper” come from a product name? I seem to think it was the brand name of the galoshes mentioned in the blog, but I can NOT remember my source.

    Like

    • According to this article:

      http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa082497.htm

      The name came from the BF Goodrich company. Seems like I’ve read that the name came from an ad campaign: “Zip! it goes down! Zip! It goes up!”

      Like

    • Lynne

      Per your post, Heidi, I found a 1926 NYT article that noted (emphasis mine): “A large tear coursed down the left cheek of the Statue of Liberty yesterday and fell with a splash into the bay. She had just been told that the War Department had turned down the proposal to put a luminous wrist watch on her upraised arm. “It’s high time,” she said, “something was done for me. Here I have been standing ever since the French Government, then happily unaware of debts, sent me over. And nobody has suggested A PAIR OF ZIPPERS–no, not even an umbrella…”

      So, it seems your memory of the association between zippers and galoshes is correct.

      Like

      • Yes, I found this while reading about galoshes today. In 1923 BF Goodrich named their galoshes “Zipper Boots.” At that time BF Goodrich was located in Akron, Ohio, and in the late 1920s when the University of Akron had a contest to name their athletic teams, the winning name was the Zippers. Today, the teams are known as The Zips.

        Like

  11. these kinds of posts of yours are my absolute fave! sorry that’s all I have to contribute today

    Like

  12. Lynne

    I forgot to add this excerpt from a 1929 NYT article about Mme. Schiaparelli: “Mme. Schiaparelli finds nothing revolutionary and no cause for alarm in the present daytime mode. She has advocated the higher waistline for the last two years, and declares the present length of sports skirts–four to six inches below the knee–a logical and becoming one. In the collection were several new ideas for the active sportswomen. For aviation there was an overall in natural linen, with collar and cuffs of black patent leather and zipper fastening…”

    Like

  13. What a fabulous post and exchange of comments. I’ll be watching for any follow-up information.

    Like

  14. Pingback: Zippers, Part II | The Vintage Traveler

  15. I imagine that it is entirely possible that authentic vintage garments from the 20’s and 30’s had zippers fitted later to replace other forms of fastening for convenience and/or trend? Fashion doesn’t stand still and garments are often modified to update from one decade to another. Not sure a garment can always be dated accurately specifically by the fastening.

    Like

    • This happens all the time. Several years ago I bought from an online a wonderful 1920s velvet and embroidered dress and jacket. When it arrived there was a nylon coil zipper in the side of the dress. The presence of the zipper did not change my opinion of the era of the dress, as it was obviously circa 1922. Originally there was no closure at all, and I’m guessing some later owner added the zipper to make it easier to put on and off. You have to use all the information a garment gives you in order to assess the age, and sometimes the information can be misleading. Sometimes you have to even compare the thread used in various parts of a garment to determine if all of it is original.

      Like

  16. Pingback: Thank Furcoat it’s Friday | Fur Coat, No Knickers

  17. Pingback: Currently Reading: Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty | The Vintage Traveler

  18. Suzanne

    It has been a few years since the last comment on this post, but here goes – maybe it is still being followed. I found this post while searching for info to help me date a dress that was passed down to me. My grandmother got it from either her grandmother, an aunt or a friend and the family story associated with it I KNOW is all wrong – supposedly it was made to be worn to a Jenny Lind concert. But the dress style is clearly a few decades later than Lind’s American tour era – but I do believe it was custom made – no label, for one thing. So here is where I start having trouble – it is floor length with a drop waist, a 20’s style sleeveless bodice, all lace over a silk or satin lining with stays in the back and center of the front (I presume that is the front – hard to tell with no discernible bust area). And a METAL ZIPPER in the side that opens it from the top of the underarm down to approximately where the waist might be. The drop waist “band” is embellished with rectangular flat “beads” apprx. 1″ x 1.2″ each. There is a matching long rectangular lace shawl trimmed with the same embellishments. The neck is just lace cut around the woven pattern in the lace and this lace goes across the shoulders. I have concluded it must be the 30s because of the zipper, but it seems to me the style pushes it towards the early 30s rather than later. I am really certain the zipper was not a later addition – my mother and I have had it for decades and it has not been worn since we got it, and before that it was just being stored. Any thoughts?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.