The zipper has played a role in the development of new technologies, and it has become an iconic image, invested with many meanings beyond its everyday utility.
The success of the zipper led to the conception and development of many other innovations. Velcro, the plastic zipper, and resealable plastic bags all have origins that link directly back to the hookless fastener. The plastic zipper, for instance, was developed in response to metal zippers’ problems with snagging, sticking, and rusting. Plastic zippers solved jamming issues, and they also had the added improvements of being waterproof, dustproof, and airtight. Plastic zippers could also be any color, and with the addition of color-coordinated cloth tape, the zipper became even more adaptable in fashions .
The zipper has come to represent broader 20th Century values and implications. The device symbolizes mechanism and sexuality in many forms of popular culture, including literature, cartoons, movies, and music. For example, in his 1932 novel Brave New World, British author Aldous Huxley satirically references zippers. He examines the liberation of sexuality and its enhancement by the mechanization of garments. The concern over machines entering traditionally natural areas of life, like procreation, is a major theme of the novel , and the zipper acts as a more subtle expression of that theme.
The zipper had become a powerful and evocative symbol of seduction in motion pictures especially. For instance, in the 1946 film Gilda Rita Hayworth’s character begins to perform a striptease. She asks for help from the audience, saying she’s “not very good at zippers, but maybe if I had some help!” Several men rush to aid her.
Here, the zipper is used as a instrument of seduction, but also subjugation. The quick opening and public accessibility of the zipper attracts sexual advances, but the mechanical nature of the device represents masculine intrusion into the private world of women’s clothing .
The sexual appeal of the zipper had also expanded into art. Andy Warhol designed the cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers album. The cover is a crouch shot of a man clad in tight blue jeans, with an emphasis on the zipper. Also, in 1969 Time released an issue dedicated to the sexual revolution. The zipper featured prominently on the cover as a symbol of liberated sexuality.
The zipper has also come to symbolize the complex relationship between humans and machines. As the zipper became commonplace, emphasis turned from its novelty to its unreliability. The zipper came to represent the threat and fear of failure. Robert Friedel, author of Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty, notes that the zipper’s place in “mechanical demonology” can be found in many cultural expressions, but most importantly in folklore . Urban legends reflect modern anxieties. Throughout the world, there are variations on the story of a man realizing his zipper is down, and as he zips it up, it catches on something or perhaps someone, resulting in incredible humiliation for all involved. Particularly common in zipper humor are stories about zippers failing, resulting in embarrassing moments that are meant to cause discomfort for the listener. This type of humor is called “zipper Schadenfreude” .
In the 1930s the zipper acted as a symbol of modernity, but following World War II it had lost much of its power to express cutting edge technology. In the postwar world it came to represent generational and cultural rebellion, particularly when Hollywood began producing anti-establishment films. For example, in movies like The Wild One (1953), the biker jacket is used to symbolize youth rebellion. The excessive number of zippers on Marlon Brando’s jacket reflects a rude, impulsive culture and the unbridled sexuality of rebellion .
The zipper is a small, somewhat trivial device. While its introduction has not reshaped American society, it has become a basic part of daily living. The slide fastener is arguably the first machine people encounter in their ordinary everyday lives. The zipper has also seamlessly interwoven itself into the fabric of American and international culture, given meanings beyond its simple function. The zipper has become a universally recognizable symbol.
Download Zipper!, Robert Friedel and Alexander Horniman discuss the zipper’s history and its meaning with the Virginia Foundation.
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