Over the last few years, but particularly during the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about capsule wardrobes: key shapes/silhouettes/combinations, and how to incorporate variety through fabrication, seasonal adaptations (e.g., sleeve length, neckline, fabric choice again), and colour. Time recovered from not commuting afforded space and energy to think about how I dress, and most importantly, how my clothes make me feel. For context, I usually demand that whatever I put on in the morning has to see me through the day, with no outfit changes for any post-work socials, and – most importantly – be comfortable, a joy to wear, and uncomplicated.
The one thing that struck me about my pattern choices was the complete absence of zips. Not a single dress, skirt, top, or pair of trousers required a zip. Only a pair of culottes, which I have already made in red and teal, needs a zip – but the leg is cut so wide that I may as well substitute them for a full skirt. Like my full skirts, these culottes were a workplace favourite in the pre-COVID era, but like many others, I have been working from home for well over a year – and not once have I wanted to wear them. I removed the culottes from the final line-up, and I was left with the items and styles I really loved and wore to death. Not a zip in sight.
My initial thought was that zips were a gendered clothing feature, partly because I’d learnt that they’d successfully replaced the button fly on men’s tailored trousers. Recent digging around on the internet assures me that the button fly vs. zip fly debate is very much open, at least regarding jeans, but the speed and convenience of zips – when deployed in an accessible way – keeps them in contention. For women’s trousers, zips are still functional, but are even more of a necessity if the trousers are close-fitting through the hips, buttocks and thighs; there are several leg silhouettes available for smart womenswear attire. My culottes played the role of the Smart Trouser; I felt that they’d be more acceptable in the workplace than a skirt. In comparison, it’s interesting to note that traditional men’s tailored trousers are not fitted through the lower half of the body; they do not cup the buttocks and fall straight from the hip, with plenty of ease through the leg, to the ankle.
The equivalent debate for women’s clothing is back zips vs. side zips on dresses. Many styles of dress require a zip: broadly speaking, these styles are fitted at the waist and at least semi-fitted through the bodice. Crucially, few have adjustable features (straps don’t count), so the pressure is on the sewist to nail the fit. Further, these design details – narrow waist, fitted bodice – aim to set standards for femininity by creating an hourglass shape, especially when teamed with a full skirt. Thanks to Dior’s New Look immediately after WW2, which defied fabric rations, expanded the silhouette and represented abundance, this hourglass association is still a major part of Western fashion culture – and it sets unfair standards for women’s bodies.
Despite this, the fit and flare style is still a favourite; it is a versatile shape, the mainstay of my wardrobe, and what inspired me to put pen to paper here. However, when closely fitted, it can be very restrictive; the wearer is acutely aware of the functionality of their body. Digestion, hormonal fluctuations, water retention, ease of movement – COMFORT – is compromised for the sake of a dress style. It is deeply ironic that zips, for all their lauded practicality and convenience, should also undermine one of the basic requirements of modern clothing: easy dressing and undressing.
Lately, indie pattern designers have been exploring ways in which the fit and flare dress can be retained as a silhouette whilst preserving comfort: happily for many sewists, this involves getting rid of zips! Runaway bestsellers such as Hinterland and Myosotis (button-down dresses from Sew Liberated and Deer and Doe respectively), Wilder (a tiered, flared gown from the Friday Pattern Company), Jude (a top or tiered dress from Ready to Sew; the dress option features an elasticated waist) Hannah and Tamzin (respectively, a wrap dress and a loose-fitting dress with back ties, both from By Hand London) pointed to this trend long before ‘secret pyjamas’ and ‘Zoom shirts’ entered the lexicon. Style lines are effectively used to create flattering details, and it is interesting to see that waist ties and elastic channels, with their inherent adaptability, are finding mainstream favour. No more contortion or finding someone to help you out of a dress: you either step out of it or take it off over your head, and you’re free.
This restrictiveness – or loss of control, needing help to get dressed – also harks back to time when wealthy women would have had hands-on support from dedicated staff. Without them, they would’ve been stuck, much like Jane Fonda (see her Instagram feed for these two photos, during the gala and the morning after the gala). It is difficult not to think of stereotypical gender roles and feelings of being trapped. The continuing presence of zips on modern dresses still speaks of dependency, trust, and the intimacy of dressing and undressing: women who are able-bodied, guaranteed support from other people in the home during some of the most vulnerable moments of the day – or both.
Is it possible to think of zips as a lifestyle choice rather than an essential part of women’s/femme clothing? I think it is. What do you think?
References and further reading | Last accessed 22nd June 2021
Lux Alptraum, ‘Zipping Your Own Dress Shouldn’t Be A Problem’, Racked, 22nd June 2017
Mary Bellis, ‘The History of the Zipper’, ThoughtCo., updated 4th October 2019
Ninette Dean, ‘The Up and Down History of the Zipper’, Unbound (Smithsonian Libraries and Archives), 3rd May 2010
Mark Hay, ‘The Battle of the Button Fly’, Esquire, 9th June 2014
Celeste Headlee, ‘A Feminist Issue: Lets’ Talk About the Back Zippers on Women’s Clothing’, Swaay, 29th January 2020
Vicki Kate Makes, ‘Side or Back Zippers – Which Do You Prefer?’, personal blog, 14th June 2012
Robert Winder, ‘Hookless hookers: the battle of the fly’, The Independent, Friday 21st April 1995
u/superH3R01N3, ‘TIL about the “Battle of the Fly”: in 1937 zippers replaced buttons on men’s trousers as the superior idea in men’s fashion’, Reddit, 2019
u/_________lol________, ‘Is it true that women’s zippers were placed on the left side to make it easier for their handmaidens to dress them?’, Reddit, 2014
9 Comments Add yours
Natalie, I love this post! In addition to zippers being an inconvenience on dresses, they are always the first thing to break and the hardest thing to fix yourself. And thank you for sharing Jane Fonda’s posts.
The movement toward body-inclusive patterns as well as thoughtfully produced premade clothes has been in the works for a while and I am grateful for it. People I feel are still being left behind, even by companies focused on giving women functional clothing, are breast-feeders. However, a number of the patterns that you linked allow for quick boob access. Hurray!
🥰 thank you very much Erin – I’m glad you liked the post! And I’m happy that you appreciated the functional aspect of the dresses I listed; wrap bodices and button placket scan only be a good thing, in my opinion ☺️
I designed myself a dress/top to disguise my colostomy, and it has no zip or other fastening. I love it and have made it again and again. Put on and go I call it, no help needed!
That sounds perfect Jane! It’s the best feeling when you find or create something so well designed, isn’t it? It slots into your life seamlessly, just as all good design should 👍🏾
Love this! Just found your blog after reading your interview over on Needled by KD. This is just the kind of attention to detail that really appeals to me. One way to have a good fit without a zip (or zipper, as we call it in the States, haha) is to use knit fabric. Some of my most favorite dresses are knits, often in the fit and flare silhouette. They move with me and stretch enough so that no zip is needed. (I myself am more of a knitter, but my mom is an excellent sewist and got me thinking about these kinds of issues from an early age, when (she says) she could make me any item of clothing, so long as it had pockets!)
Ah, pockets! I could write another essay about those…
And thank you very much for commenting; I must confess to being in two minds about sewing with stretch fabrics (this is purely personal). On one hand, I enjoy the ease and comfort they provide; on the other, I always wish I had a coverstitch machine because I like the finishing touches that brings. Twin needles are good for hems, but it’s just not the same. I’d like to think it’s that attention to detail again 😉
I prefer to make or buy loose fitting dresses and tops to fly into and keep it loose and breezy in warm weather (or when you’re bloated. I’d prefer people didn’t know about the going ons in my body with a simple glance. Except the last stages of a pregnancy) or layered and belted in cool weather. I intend to keep my clothes for decades like previous generations did and since our bodies are likely to change as we age, it’s convenient to have clothes that are ready to welcome all changes. A generous seam allowance and darts can be adjusted to make factory-standard clothing fit your specific contours. Also, zips make folded clothes bulkier than I want them to be. I also have a lovely collection of god quality zips that I removed from clothing I didnt like have them on. They’re kept to replace zips that no longer function, to add zips on clothing I want to add them to and to give the perfect zip to someone else making clothes (I hope people stop throwing away perfectly reusable components of their items to landfill). Though I like having zips for outerwear – no gaping holes to let the warm air out nor do have you have to fiddly things with ice cold fingers.
Thank you for your comment – and that’s an excellent point about outerwear 😊. I am about to make a coat with buttons, my first for quite some time, and it’ll be interesting to see how I get on with the buttons!