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.).
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.
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”!