Can you zip me up, please?

This is a completely unscientific observation, but it seems to me that the zipper has made a fairly substantial migration over the years – from the side of the dress – to the back of the dress.  If that sounds confusing, let me explain a bit more, by showing you some of my dress patterns which date from the 1950s.  All of these dresses feature a side zipper, placed a few inches under the left arm and extending a few inches below the waist (or, in other words, these zippers open within a garment seam.).

I love the clean lines of this dress from 1957, with the "yoke" effect which extends into the kimono sleeves. The back of the envelope shows more detail.

You can see from this back view that, although the top back yoke buttons, a side zipper is still necessary to get the dress on!

The front on this dress only opens to the waist, so a side zipper enables one to step into it. This pattern is dated 1957.

The back detail on this evening gown from 1958 would have been interrupted by a center back zipper, but a side zipper preserves the designer's intent.

I love this dress design from 1957, which simply would not work using a center back zipper.

Patterns from the last half of the 1960s start to feature more and more zippers which are placed in the center back of the dress, and by the 1970s, it seems, almost all zippers were center back ones.

This design from the early '60s would work with either a side or center back zipper, but the pattern calls for a center back one, thus showing the start of the transition.

The dress on this pattern is actually my next project! It is a design by Jacques Heim from the 1970s. I'll be inserting a 22" neckline zipper in the back of this dress.

A casual look at vintage clothes from this time period also seems to support this observation (with the occasional exception to the rule, of course.  I actually saw a side-zippered dress at J.Crew one day this week, but it’s not the same, really, as the dress is sleeveless and the zipper parts at the top, under the arm.)

To try to understand some of the dynamics of this zipper conundrum, I went to my 101 Things I Learned in Fashion School book (by Alfredo Cabrera with Matthew Frederick) to see if I could find any entry on zippers.  Here is what I found on page 64:

“Center back zippers are like fine crystal:  best reserved for special occasions.  When a student designs an interesting garment and is asked how the wearer gets into it, the common answer is, ‘center back zipper.’  This solution is favored by inexperienced designers because it doesn’t require an invasive change to a garment.  But a back closure is rarely a satisfactory solution; it’s a fussy, frustrating concern when one has only fifteen minutes to dress for work.

“Back closures are a remnant from an era when women wore corsets and hoopskirts and had maids to truss them up in back.  Today they are more appropriate in association with major events.  On her wedding day or Oscar night, after a woman has spent a lot of time and money on her hair and makeup, she is more likely to want to step into her dress than pull it over her head.  A center back zipper implies a fitting sense of occasion.” [my emphasis]

Side-placed zippers are different from center-back zippers both in name and detail:  side zippers are called “dress” zippers and have bottom and top “stops”, while zippers for the center back (or skirts, pants, shorts) are called “neckline” or “skirt” zippers and, of course, open at the top with a stop just at the bottom.  (Skirt and neck zippers can easily be made into dress zippers by putting a few tacking stitches to anchor the two sides together right above the pull.)  Back in their hay-day, dress zippers were available in lengths from 10” to 14”. Skirt and neckline zippers are still available in lengths ranging from 6” to 24”, but they are now called “all-purpose” zippers.

So why, since the ‘70s, have most side dress zippers been replaced by neckline zippers placed center back?  I guess there are several potential answers to that question, including:

1) a lot of us would rather step into our dresses than pull them over our heads even if we are not dressing for a special occasion.

2) laziness or ignorance  (both kind of strong words, for which I apologize to anyone offended!) or practicality on the part of designers.

3) it’s just become the accepted way of closing a dress.

4) the invisible zipper made application of the zipper easier and the finished look more streamlined.

5) Huh? What’s a side zipper?

I’m sure there are lots of other explanations but my favorite one is a bit more romantic…   James H. Boren put it succinctly thus:  “A dress that zips up the back will bring a husband and wife together.”   I’d say that is a “fitting sense of occasion”!


Filed under kimono sleeves, side-placed zippers, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1970s, Vogue patterns

3 responses to “Can you zip me up, please?

  1. Interesting research you found! I had never really thought of zipper migration like that.

    It has always seemed to me that people are more intimidated by side zippers – especially if they have to sew one. Lots of pattern instructions like to put the zipper step first (which I always do LAST for fitting purposes) so maybe is partly laziness on the patternmaking companies. I’ve been disappointed by many of the Marfy patterns – they have beautiful styles on the front of their dresses but the backs are all basically the same with a center back zipper and plain seams with no details. (Maybe they only design the front half of a dress and pull a stock pattern for the back or something.) I’ve also had to help dress actresses who just plan couldn’t find a zipper if it wasn’t center back.

    And I LOVE the pattern you are using for your next dress! I would totally wear that myself. =)

  2. Suzanne Smith

    The back zipper was not made for single women. You can’t even try on the dress in the store to see how it fits before you buy it unless you have assistance. To me, a side zipper is much more convenient and can be just as streamlined.

  3. Suzanne Smith

    The back zipper was not made for single women. You can’t even try on the dress in the store to see how it fits before you buy it unless you have assistance. To me, a side zipper is much more convenient and can be just as streamlined.

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