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The innovation that changed fashion forever

At the fashion exhibition hosted by New York's Museum of Modern Art, the zipper gets its due

Troy Patterson | Bloomberg 

Photos: Bloomberg
Photos: Bloomberg

What makes modern? Is it the The cut? The way it tells you all you need to know about the wearer? I began thinking about this question last year when Paola Antonelli, senior curator of design and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, recruited me to contribute to “Modern?” The exhibition, which opens on October 1, is only the second the museum has devoted to fashion, following a 1944 predecessor put on by the maverick architect Bernard Rudofsky.

As a prelude to the exhibit, I participated in a day of short talks on sartorial themes — an “abecedarium,” Antonelli called it—with 26 presentations made in alphabetical order. For the letter A, for instance, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield discussed the birth of the Air Max; for C, former Costume Institute curator Harold Koda detailed the history of the cheongsam, the body-hugging Chinese dress.

Leather Jacket

I had the honour of discussing Z, for Today the is ubiquitous. On, say, the nylon Prada backpack to be featured at MoMA, it’s almost too mundane to merit comment. On the Schott Perfecto motorcycle jacket, also included in the exhibition, it transcends its original functionality to become a design element in its own right. And on a few of the little black dresses in the museum, the has become a synonym for domestic intimacy: How many times has a fellow helped his wife with one before heading to dinner, its teeth inter­locking as the pull runs up her spine?

The is an American product, Chicago-born. In 1893, Whitcomb Judson, an Illinois inventor, introduced his patented “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes” at the World’s Fair. Judson’s product was a clumsy, crude device, a glorified hook-and-eye mechanism. In 1913 a Judson employee named Gideon Sundback patented the “Hookless Fastener No. 2” and put us on the road to progress. No button, lacing, or snap had ever brought human flesh into such close proximity with machines and the efficiencies they metallically embody.

This fashionable innovation, however, was slow to catch on. A world where the corset was common did not rush to welcome an expensive novelty that promised swift disrobing. But it was slowly integrated into money belts, wardrobes, slipcovers, sleeping bags, pencil cases, tobacco pouches, and handbags. The word “zipper” itself was coined by rubber company B F Goodrich in 1923, as an onomatopoetic trademark for its galoshes and sports shoes. A typical Goodrich ad promised to make a lad a champion: “Beat all the boys undressing when you go swimming!”

In the 1930s, young men rejected button-fly trousers as fuddy-duddy, and, as the finally normalised, Judson’s company — renamed Talon — had factories operating in 24-hour production mode, even during the Depression.

Today the market is a $13 billion industry dominated, as everyone in possession of a windbreaker knows, by Japan’s YKK Group, a company that secured its reputation by embracing vertical integration: It makes the metal for its zippers and the boxes those zippers are delivered in. In 2015 the company opened a London showroom for its higher-end wares — the type fit for a luxury handbag — in an effort to outflank Chinese competitors now delivering respectable goods at a fast-pace.

First Published: Fri, September 01 2017. 23:54 IST