Object lesson No. 10 The zip

10th March 2000 at 00:00
In Victorian times, lacing up your boots with lengthy shoe laces or fiddly hooks and eyes was a laborious business. But Whitcomb Judson thought he had the answer. He designed a "clasp locker" to do the job and went to the Chicago World Fair in 1893 with high hopes for his new invention.

In the event, he sold only 20. His rather medieval-looking device was marketed as a novelty but it met with only limited success. Ten years later he renamed it the hookless fastener, and tried to sell it to dressmakers with the line: "Wonder of wonders, the wearer can fasten the back of her own skirt." But it was difficult to fit, would get rusty after washing and cost more than the garment it held together.

A revised design in 1917 by Mr Judson's protege, Gideon Sundback, brought commercial success. But Whitcomb Judson never shared in it - he died in 1909. And he never heard his invention called a zip - that was the onomatopoeic moniker given it by a galoshes manufacturer.

In the 1930s, children's clothes with zips were advertised as self-help clothing which taught them to dress on their own. Zip-up flies on men's trousers aught on (ouch!) after the Duke of Windsor was seen wearing a pair with the new fangled fastener. Esquire magazine even claimed they would remove the "possibility of unintentional or embarrassing disarray" known as flying low.

The zip soon became ubiquitous. Biker jackets, jumpers and luggage all came to rely on it for quick and easy closure and the plastic zip (which has intermeshing spirals instead of rows of teeth called "dimples and nibs") revolutionised dress design.

Depending what you're wearing there's probably a zip somewhere about your person. Recently, Mr Judson's ingenious device has been facing some sticky competition from Velcro, the trade name given to nylon hook and loop fasteners which were inspired when burrs stuck to the woollen pants of a Swiss mountaineer.

But when it comes to culture, the zip has it covered. It has appeared everywhere from the cover of the Rolling Stones' album Sticky Fingers to a puppet on seventies children's programme Rainbow, which had a zip for a mouth. When Zippy talked too much they shut him up with a swift tug of his tab. If only life were like that.

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