The zipper is one of the most important clothing devices in the theater today. Without it, quick changes in and out of multiple costumes would be nearly impossible. However, this revolutionary device almost died in obscurity.
The idea of a zipper-like closure was first patented by Elias Howe in 1851; however, bulky design and Howe’s own waning interest after his successful invention of the sewing machine caused the idea to be buried, not to be revived until 1893 with the invention of the Clasp Locker (Bellis). The Clasp Locker, created by Whitcomb Judson, was a series of hooks and eyes that were pulled together by a slider. While this did speed up closing hooks and eyes, the Locker had a tendency to pull apart if pressure was applied, and was still very bulky, so it was not a success.
The zipper we know today came in 1913, as an improvement on the Clasp Locker by Gideon Sundeback (thomasnet). Sundeback realized, after a failure of his own in simply trying to make the Clasp Locker smaller, that the closure didn’t need to be hooks and eyes. A series of oval bumps and scoops, stamped out of metal attached to fabric, then slid through a slider like the Clasp Locker, would shut tightly without excess bulk. Terming it the Seperable Fastener, Sundeback obtained his patent in 1917(thomasnet).
However, this increase in usefulness did not lead directly to commercial success. The fashion world was cold, due to the device’s resemblance to the earlier failures, and until 1937 the main uses were in military gear and rain boots, the latter of which conferred the moniker zipper in 1925. The 1937 “Battle of the Fly” finally brought the zipper to commercial success, as the zipper beat out buttons as the main method of closing pant flies (Bellis). Fashion magazines such as Esquire began to sing the virtues of the zipper, and now it is in almost every piece of clothing, a great leap for a device that almost no one wanted.
Bellis, Mary. “The History of the Zipper”. About.Com. 2013 http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa082497.htm Accessed 11/20/2013
“The History of the Zipper”. Thomasnet.com. 2013