The zipper is a metal or plastic device with interlocking teeth used to join two edges together. The zipper as we know it today was patented in 1917 by Gideon Sundbäck, yet already in 1851, Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, had patented his “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure”. The story goes that the zipper got its name when an employee of the footwear manufacturer BF Goodrich was by sliding the fastener up and down a boot and exclaimed, “Zip ‘er up!”
In relation to denim, Lee claims to be the first manufacturer to have used zippers in jeans in the 1920s. The zip fly, developed as an alternative to the button fly, refers to the zipper on a pair of jeans. In 1927, Lee added the zipper to their Union-Alls (denim coveralls designed specifically for automobile drivers) to allow the wearer to remove the garment more quickly. The company held a contest to come up with a name for the device, eventually choosing ‘the Whizit’. However, the zip fly didn’t really begin replacing the button fly until the late 1930s with the “Battle of the Fly”, when French fashion designers began raving about its advantages over buttons. In the 50s the fastening device became commonly used and companies began making zippered versions of their jeans, probably best known from around 1953 when Levi’s introduced the 501ZXX, the zip version of the iconic 501XX.
The zipper wasn’t to the joy of everyone, however, and as one customer wrote to Levi’s wearing zippered jeans felt like peeing into the jaws of an alligator. This is quite understandable as zippers back then where all made of metal compared to nylon and other softer materials that are common today.
Still, the zip did catch on and has became a huge success for both men’s and women’s jeans. Today, the zipper is the most prevalent fastener, used on everything from clothes to luggage to shoes to packaging. Nevertheless, to this day many hardcore denim enthusiasts would never wear jeans with zippers. The reason would most likely be caused by the fact that a button fly creates beautiful fadings and that with shrink-to-fit denim a zipper usually start bulging after shrinkage.
Several kinds of zippers exist, the most common being coil zippers, plastic zippers, and metal zippers. Metal zippers, the most traditional zipper, are the type found on the vast majority of jeans. While it usually serves the function of fastening and removing one’s pants, it is also used for decoration on pockets. According Simon Tuntelder of After the Denim you should know these premium zipper brands if you’re into vintage jeans or reproduction jeans: Talon (especially the Talon 42), Scovill, Gripper Zipper, Universal, Waldes, Ideal, Conmar/Conmatic, and Riri.
Sources: Rawr Denim and After the Denim