The little-known histories of 5 fashion staples

June 29, 2019

You wear them, you wash them, you fold them, you iron them, but how much do you know about them? It turns out that the clothing in your wardrobe is full of fascinating history, and even a little political drama. Check out the backstory behind five fashion elements below.


As with so many inventions, the man credited with the invention of the zipper wasn’t actually the first to invent it — he was just the first to make it commercially viable. The first patent for anything zipper-like came in 1851 when Elias Howe, Jr. filed a patent for an “Improvement in fastenings for garments.” Howe’s creation was made of metal clasps and a long thread in a sort of zipper-lacing hybrid, but it had some problems and Howe eventually abandoned it for his much more successful invention: the sewing machine.

But Whitcomb Judson is the man most consider to be the inventor of the zipper, thanks to his “clasp locker” that used a sliding mechanism to close and open a chain of metal clasps. Legend has it that Judson was on the heavier side and was tired of having to bend over to tie his shoes, which is probably why this “clasp locker” was designed specifically for shoes. Judson’s device even debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair but didn’t have much popular success because it tended to pop open and tear the material. But over time, designers at Whitson’s company made some changes — connecting it to fabric tape rather than the material itself and adding more clasps per inch — and the device became a hit.

Its big turning point happened in the late 1930s with the “battle of the fly,” when fashion designers experimented with putting zippers in men’s trousers — and the zippers won. Between 1937 and 1941, zipper sales more than tripled. (This was also when Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha, the company that now makes about half of all zippers on Earth, got its start. That’s why your jeans zipper most likely says “YKK” on it).

Hawaiian Shirts

The Hawaiian shirt — or the “Aloha” shirt, as it was originally called — is like Hawaii itself: multicultural. The first shirts were made from kimono fabric brought over by Japanese immigrants, designed with a Western silhouette reminiscent of the palaka worn by plantation workers, and worn like a Filipino barong tagalog, untucked and flowing. No one knows who made the first one, but by the 1920s, cruise-ship tourists were clamoring for local tailor shops to make the brightly colored garments. By the 1930s, the shirts were being made in factories on mass-produced fabric inspired by local nature scenes rather than traditional kimono patterns. Interestingly, the Aloha shirt boom took place around the same time as the zipper boom, with sales more than quadrupling between 1937 and 1940.

The Hawaiian shirt did leave one legacy beyond its popularity with dads and ironic fashionistas: It helped create casual Fridays. In 1966, the Hawaii Fashion Guild launched Aloha Fridays, urging office workers to cast off their sweltering suits for a colorful Hawaiian shirt. The idea caught fire, and casual Fridays were born.

The Pocket

In the middle ages, nobody had pockets. Everyone carried their stuff around in bags, which they’d often tie to a belt or sling from a rope to keep their hands free. To avoid pickpockets and bypass the need to remove one’s belt to remove their coat, people would often keep their bags hidden beneath their outermost garments, which were made with slits in the fabric for easy access. For women, this was just fine, since huge skirts were in at the time and it was easy to conceal a bag under all that fabric. But menswear silhouettes made concealing a bag awkward, so around the 17th century, someone got the bright idea to sew a bag into a garment itself — and the men’s pocket was born. Of course, eventually, women’s fashion abandoned big frills for a more streamlined style, just like menswear had, but somehow the pocket never caught on with ladies’ garments. Their absence has been so conspicuous that they’ve even played a part in women’s liberation movements.

Denim Rivets

These days, jeans are the great equalizer — men, women, rich, poor, old, young, everyone wears them. But originally, their inventors had one customer base in mind: laborers. Legend has it that in the 1870s, the wife of a local laborer in Reno, Nevada asked Jacob Davis, a tailor, if he could find a way to reinforce her husband’s trousers so they wouldn’t rip so easily. Davis had used metal rivets on horse blankets for the same purpose and he realized they could work well to keep the stress points of men’s pants from coming apart at the seams. He knew he should patent this idea, and he knew he needed a business partner to do it, so he wrote to the man from whom he had purchased his heavy-duty trouser cloth: Levi Strauss. Strauss agreed to Davis’s proposal, and the men got their patent in 1873. Jeans were born.

High Heels

Here’s a shocker: High heels once had a practical purpose. They were first worn by men riding horse in order to keep their feet secure in the stirrups. In 1599, a group of Persian diplomats came galloping into Europe in search of allies in their war against the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the 1700s, Persian culture was cool in Europe, and anybody who was anybody was wearing high heels — if they were male, anyway. That included Louis XIV, who dolled up his wardrobe for a 1701 portrait with a pair of red-painted heels in a style that he decreed, could only be worn by people in his inner circle.

Around that time, European women were beginning to assert their equality by adopting traditionally masculine forms of dress. That included high heels. Eventually, both men and women were wearing heels, although women adopted a skinnier heel to differentiate between men’s and women’s styles. But around the 19th century, men stopped wearing heels altogether. My, how the high-heeled have fallen.