I couldn’t draw the zip of my dress to close one day. As all women know, as you pull the zip up it reaches a point on your back where you cannot move it any further but also cannot reach it from above. So I cursed and employed weird contortions to erase my impropriety. It was at that point I was struck that I shouldn’t complain. The humble zip is mighty.
Invention and advancement can be quite shocking; disconcerting almost. But when it becomes ubiquitous, we forget how much it may have changed our lives. A writer I follow amusingly wrote a meander about the top hat which first appeared on the streets of London in 1797 on the head of a man called John Hetherington. This was a quote from a policeman at the time : ‘He had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.’ Hetherington was arrested, found guilty of wearing a hat ‘calculated to frighten timid people’. That’s change for you.
I work with young companies striving to commercialise technology in various fields from medical to finance to software. I find how we endeavour mostly quite inspiring and am an evangelist for technology advancement being a key building block in solving many of our seemingly intractable problems around climate, environment, health and so forth.
When we consider technological change and the context of the bigger picture, analysts have termed the period we now find ourselves in the fourth industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution in the 18th century created steam powered factories (allowing production to be mechanised) moving away from agrarian life. The second entailed the application of science to mass production and the wide spread use of electricity. The third revolution in the 1950’s encompassed the emergence of digitisation and computing power. The fourth comprises the convergence of technologies — digital, physical and biological. The current cycle has the potential to connect billions of people, improve efficiencies and manage assets in a way that could regenerate the environment but may also fragment power as automation substitutes for labour. This period could be contemplated as an extension of the third revolution but the scope and speed of change is considered to have accelerated as innovation and capitalism have advanced hand in hand. It is regarded as a regime change.
Back to a small cog in the revolutions of past — the modest zip, which is a technological marvel even if we wouldn’t put it in that category with modern eyes. Prior to the zip, we had the button which has been in existence for c5000 years. It was first found in Pakistan used with loops and toggles — if used at all; not with buttonholes. In the 12th century, laces appeared; buttonholes were created in the 13th century in Germany and in the 14th century the hook and eye appeared in Britain. As an aside, in 1837, Mark Twain the famous author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, patented a hook and eye system on stretchy material — possibly the front runner for the bra? Much later along came the zip which was originally called a ‘clasp locker’. Although today it is all pervasive its development has been erratic and surprisingly it took a long time to move into the mainstream.
Where the actual concept for the zip came from is sketchy — I believe it originated from the auto industry and was progressed unsuccessfully by various inventors for expanded uses. But clunkiness, high cost and unreliability halted wider popularity. In the early 1900’s, Gideon Sundback a Swedish immigrant to the USA with an engineering background took the basis of zip technology and evolved it into what we know today. He also invented the machine to make these zips in a consistent approach laying the ground for mass manufacturing. At first his design was incorporated into quite utilitarian products such as tobacco pouches and money belts. It only came to be utilised in clothing when in 1918 the US navy adopted it for aviator jackets. In 1923 B.F Goodrich, a company better known for tyres attached zips to a new type of rubber boot it called Zippers due to the noise they created when walking. Despite this new use, zips were still expensive and the public found them strange compared to the button. Zips remained friendless.
Several years later, fashion was inspired to take another look. In the 1930’s, Wallis Simpson the American socialite who caused scandal as the wife of former King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom, adopted the zipped fly encouraging fashion designers to consider its appeal. For trousers the union with zips was advertised with a line that it prevented “the possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray”. Marketing measures also promoted zipped clothing as supporting self reliance in children. However It wasn’t until 1947 that Levi’s finally placed zips into denim for women to appeal to the many female customers who considered jeans with buttons lacking modesty. Zips were now high in favour for a variety of uses and mass production made them much more affordable.
Sundback’s patents expired in 1960 and YKK a Japanese company raced ahead to dominate zip production globally. I read somewhere it has presence in 73 countries and controls c40% of the market by value. A quiet monopoly that shows no signs of being dislodged. In 2017 the world wide zip market was worth c$11.2bn which according to The Economist is bigger than the value of the condom market! It continues to grow as the range of applications from clothes to bags to furnishings is vast, boosted by population and consumption continuing apace.
I enjoy this quote describing zips by Tom Robbins : ‘Zippers are primal and modern at the very same time. On the one hand your zipper is primitive and reptilian, on the other mechanical and slick….Little alligators of ecstasy’.
To me the humble zip is mighty although I wish someone would figure out how I can leave the house fully dressed…..