Hookless hookers: the battle of the fly

Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty Robert Friedel Norton £16.95

In olden times, historians used to devote themselves mainly to so-called great events: battles and religious heresies and the rise and fall of empires. These days, in growing numbers, they are training their meticulous telescopes on everyday life. Robert Friedel's thorough and engaging history of the zip joins a genre: in recent years we have seen long accounts of the potato, wood, the pencil, tin, the banana, salt, table manners, the paperclip, and much else. It is important that these books are strikingly long and bursting with intricate details. A brief history of zips would be a waste of time. It is the sheer size of the undertaking (250 busy pages) that alerts us to the poetry in clasps and suggests we are what we zip.

Friedel's account is so persuasive that it is hard to imagine how the anniversary-mad modern world allowed the year 1991 to pass without centenary fireworks for what was, in that first bright flush, called the "slide fastener". They could have had installation artists zipping up the Sahara; there could have been advertisements in magazines for unique commemorative zips; there might even have been a case for a national no-zipping day.

The main beneficiary of all this would have been YKK, a Japanese company which in 1991 enjoyed what Friedel calls "international zipper pre- eminence", and produced well over a million zip miles. But the story is primarily an American one. Whitcomb Judson was a Chicago-based machine salesman who had already failed with his big hope, an absurdly elaborate hydraulic transportation system. But his basic design for a boot fastener - a series of hooks which could be swiftly yoked - truly was the mother of all zips. He patented it in 1891, but it took nearly 50 years for his little gadget to, er, catch on.

It was into America that the zip first fastened its brassy little teeth. At first it was touted as a "universal fastener", but was so universal that no one could think what to do with it. It was good for shoes, bags, packages and clothes, but hardly essential for any of them. That it won through is, Friedel argues, partly a tribute to America's tremendous marketing willpower, but mainly a function of the supple adaptability of human desire. People did not know they needed zips - they managed perfectly well with buttons and hooks. But in the end they came to want them. And so, desire being a sharper salesman than mere need, they simply had to have them. The zip industry, which settled in Hoboken, New Jersey, pushed a concept called "gaposis" - an imaginary complaint caused by ill-fitting clothes which let light and air (and eyes) in on the body underneath. Zips were promoted as the cure for this supposedly unsightly condition.

This was just typical feel-bad advertising, but Friedel is right: zips are beautiful. They both join and separate, both resist and flex. They are neat and cool, but also fierce, like jaws. And the name is a winner - the way the indolent z is so decisively sawn off by the throwaway ending. If it still went under the name "hookless hooker", the zip might not have become what it is today, "the first machine that any of us encounter in daily life".

For a long time zips were so unreliable that salesmen knew better than to go near anyone they had hoodwinked into buying one. The breakthrough came when Hoboken targeted clothing as the key, snagging on an erotic association that caught the imagination of the world. For a while it was a question of which would capitulate first: the male groin or the female backside. Friedel suggests that masculine fashion, being more conservative than the fluid, fun-loving feminine world, clung to its buttons. But he notices also, as he narrates what became known as "the battle of the fly", that there were sharper, more personal reasons for men's reticence. A certain amount of trial, and excruciating error, was enough to persuade many tailors to see the zip as a dangerous enemy.

In the end both sexes succumbed. In 1937 there were 139 million zip sales in America; by 1941 there were 500 million. The reason, Friedel proposes, was simple. Zips held out the alluring promise of "a quick and effortless disrobing", and became an emphatic part of the imagery of promiscuity and rebellion. These days, though, we notice them only when they lead nowhere, when they are just bold badges.

The best inventions, Friedel argues, are not clever responses to intractable problems. The really successful brainwaves are those that somehow create desires that only they can gratify; this is how they come to seem indispensable. Friedel admits in his first line that he had more fun researching the book than is usually supposed to attach itself to historical scholarship; but in his eagerness to insist that zips perform no useful service and are primarily a cultural fact, he downplays their genuine, if slightly boring, virtues: simple, strong, fast, tidy, and above all mass-producible.

He insists there was no demand for zips beyond novelty, documents the decades of entrepreneurial effort that were ploughed into persuading the world to like them, and concludes that our enthusiasm for zips is not utilitarian, but more like our appetite for new dances or literary forms. Yet surely a pointless gizmo that merely hooked a fashion reflex would not have endured for so long. Perhaps the truth is more tedious: that the world was happy to be zipless so long as the darn things were expensive and came apart in your hand.

Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss