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The Best Defense Against a Broken Zipper? A Good Offense

If you’d like to feel better about absolutely any stupid thing you’ve ever done, consider the sad tale I’m about to regale you with. A few years ago, I attended the wedding of a fellow costume designer—which was attended by even more fellow costume designers. All told, there were over a dozen costume professionals in attendance at this event.

So when the zipper on my dress broke right before the ceremony, you’d think at least one of us would have a solution. But I, a professional costume designer and dresser of famous people, did not have any wardrobe tools on my person. I mean not a needle and thread or even a single, solitary safety pin. I frantically burned up the phone calling every one of my costume brethren in attendance—only to find that none of them had a needle and thread or safety pin either. (Don’t worry, I’m having the whole lot of us drummed out of the costume guild just as soon as I get a spare moment.)

Friends don't let friends zip zippers alone.
Friends don’t let friends zip zippers alone.
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Luckily, the front desk of the hotel had one mangled, bent needle and a very small piece of hot pink thread—so with minutes to spare, my boyfriend sewed me into my dress. Examining his not-so-handiwork, he asked “It’ll be dark soon, right?” as we walked out the door to the ceremony.

At breakfast the next morning, I asked the assorted costume babes what they thought was the best solution to a busted zipper. As we chatted about it over pancakes, we all came to the same conclusion: Once a zipper has busted, there’s almost no salvaging it. You are either going to replace the zipper or be sewn into the garment like I was. Replacing a zipper at home is out of most people’s comfort zones, so you’re looking at a trip to the tailor—who will most likely make you shop for the replacement zipper yourself!

So your best defense is a very, very good zipper offense.

Here’s how to make sure any zipper—but especially one that’s worrying you—doesn’t bust when you need it most:

1. Get a helper.

Zipping up a fancy party frock is a 2-person affair. You need one person to hold the sides of the dress close together and another to carefully zip it up, paying close attention that the teeth of the zipper are not getting bent or mangled. When you are blindly zipping yourself up from behind, you can’t see what’s going on, and are more likely to get it off track and bend some teeth along the way.

2. Close the hook and eye (while checking for stray threads) first.

Before zipping: Hook the hook through the eye.
Before zipping: Hook the hook through the eye.
Photo by Mark Weinberg

The purpose of a hook and eye at the top of a garment is to help keep the sides of the zipper track together for a smoother, guided zip—so closing it before you start zipping is of utmost importance. And get into the habit of always giving the area alongside the zipper a visual once over for stray threads that could get caught in the track and cause it to malfunction.

3. Lube it up.

Greasing up a zipper (plastic or metal) in advance of zipping it is always a good idea. You can buy special zipper lube for this purpose, but you can also use a bar of soap or even a tube of lip balm in a pinch—just be careful not to get any grease on your garment. Some folks swear by rubbing the lead of a pencil on a stuck zipper, as graphite is actually a lubricant, but I find it only really works on metal zippers.

4. Be gentle.

Invisible zippers are used in a lot of dresses because they are (as the name implies) invisible once zipped up, but they are also notorious for splitting and breaking. Always go slowly when zipping up an invisible zipper, and don’t ever roughly force the zipper over a stress point. If you encounter any resistance, it’s best to back up and get a running start at areas over the bust or widest part of your back.

Left: “Grease” a zipper to make it zip easier. RIght: An invisible zipper (blue) versus an exposed one.
Photos by Mark Weinberg

5. Be prepared.

The moral of my tragic zipper story is this: Always be prepared. If you are traveling to a wedding or other fancy occasion, pack a needle and spool of thread to match your dress, and consider having your zippers looked at by a tailor in advance of the big day so they can troubleshoot it for you. (It doesn’t matter how much you paid for the gown, the zipper could still be cheap—or sewn way too close to the fabric in some parts, making it more prone to breaking.)

A final piece of zipper advice: I find a metal zipper to be superior to a plastic one in every single way, so consider taking the time to have a flimsy plastic zipper replaced on any dress that means a lot to you. Not only are metal zippers stronger, you at least have some hope of bending a bent metal zipper tooth back into place. With a plastic zipper, the tooth just snaps off—and that’s both the beginning and the end of your sad zipper story.

What garment or laundry woes do you need help with? Tell us in the comments.

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