Vintage fashion innovations
Aug 8, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Dear readers, over the years we’ve introduced you to all sorts of vintage fashion innovations: like when we said goodbye to corsets and hello to pants or when stockings went from silk to nylon. But a recent Smithsonian Instagram post reminded me that there are a couple unsung heroes we have yet to discuss here on Cause A Frockus. (Side note: if you aren’t following the Smithsonian yet – what are you waiting for? It’s like a fun nugget of vintage trivia every day!) Our first hero is a young William Henry Perkin, who at age eighteen unknowingly changed the course of fashion’s manufacturing trajectory. The young chemist was working on a cure for malaria (a pretty ambitious after school hobby!) and during that process created a brilliantly purple synthetic dye. While on the surface that doesn’t sound earth-shattering, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. The year was 1856 and if you wanted colorful clothing that meant a huge investment of time and money. Can you just imagine how monochromatic and blah the fashion world must have been? And how unfair it was that colorful clothes were a luxury reserved for only the most wealthy of fashionistas? Until Henry’s fateful discovery, fabric dyes could only be sourced from natural elements – making them limited by supply and extremely expensive.
Henry’s synthetic dye, mauveine, was essentially the residue from the black sludge his experiments created. From a pure chemical perspective, this result would have been deemed a failure. But Henry was not an ordinary scientist – he had an entrepreneurial streak – he saw the beauty in the leftovers. That keen business sense made him both a patent and factory owner at the ripe age of nineteen. Mass producing his dye in Middlesex, the demand for this color (re-branded as mauve) skyrocketed. Within ten years, what started with Henry became a full-fledged industry.
Several other events supported the industry’s growth: adapting dyeing techniques for cotton, the popularity of the hoop skirt meant more fabric used in fashion (more surface area to dye!), and an endorsement of the purple hue by Queen Victoria (the definitive voice in fashion during this time). Henry was constantly creating, going on to invent one of the world’s first synthetic perfumes. These efforts were rewarded with a knighthood in 1906, a year before his death, and today his legacy lives on in hallowed halls. His mauveine color can be seen on scholarly robes worldwide and the Imperial College in London is one such place with an appreciation of this vibrant hue. The President of the College is quoted as saying in 2015 “The colour purple symbolises the spirit of endeavour and discovery, and the risk-taking nature that characterises those with an Imperial education and training.” What a brilliant homage to Henry’s vision.
Our next vintage fashion innovation has a rockier lineage. The zipper passed through the hands of many a visionary before taking its place in the fashion world. When Henry was still an aspiring chemist, in 1851, the inventor of the sewing machine (Elia Howe) took out a patent for the “automatic, continuous clothing closure.” (That name just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) With the growing popularity of his sewing machines, Elia didn’t capitalize on the unique potential of his latest invention and so it sat for another two decades. Next up was a gentleman by the name of Whitcomb Judson who made the “clasp locker” – based on Howe’s technology of interlocking teeth. Judson peddled his wares at the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair to little – if no – fanfare. The zipper we know and love today is the result of our third contributor: engineer Gideon Sundback. In 1923 his particular design got the attention of B.F. Goodrich. Sundback’s zipper won the commission for their rubber boots and soon other clients came calling. But those early use cases for the zipper were not considered high-fashion. It would take a couple more decades before the world of fashion would consider the humble zipper en vogue.
By the 1930s the zipper could be seen in children’s’ clothing, as a way to encourage independence in these little tykes. Next, after an endorsement from the French, the zipper showed up on men’s trousers. Women’s clothing adopted the innovative closure by the 1940s and today the zipper is nearly omnipresent in fashion. While the zipper’s early days seem a bit like a game of hot potato (being bounced from different entrepreneurs), its place in fashion history has been cemented – last year the Museum of Modern Art featured this vintage fashion innovation in an exhibit! Much like Henry’s mauveine, the zipper enabled the average person to access and enjoy fashion. The zipper drastically reduced the amount of time spent dressing (which meant a lady could get ready without an army of maids) and its metallic efficiency spoke to the early modernist hearts, making fashion seem less dated and more futuristic. In a very real way the zipper democratized fashion. Tell me dear readers, what other vintage fashion innovations would you put in this category? Tell us about it in the comments & we may use your ideas for the next feature!