Generation Y

A fly in the ointment

Are you a man? Do you own more than one pair of jeans? If so, you’ve probably wondered at some point why some manufacturers use button flies instead of zippers.

Here is the answer: these jeans companies hate you and want to make your life harder. For men, the fly on a pair of jeans serves a very important purpose—which I needn’t spell out—and the task with which it assists is inevitably more time-consuming and effortful with a button closure than with a zip fly.

What could be accomplished by a brief flick of the wrist instead becomes a protracted two-handed fumbling job that, depending on the stiffness of the denim, may additionally require the unfastening of a belt and the undoing of the top button (in order to achieve the necessary momentum to “rip” the lower buttons open)—in which case some portion of the overhanging belt will almost certainly make accidental contact with the filthy, disgusting urinal while you’re otherwise occupied.Buttoning up is even worse.

As far as I know, women’s jeans use zip flies almost exclusively, but the men’s denim industry seems to be split. In my experience, inexpensive jeans tend to have zippers, whereas fancier designer jeans are a little more likely to have button closures, although there are devotees of each style on either end of the spectrum.

Yet I recently asked ten male friends whether they prefer button flies or zip flies, and nine of them reported that they like zippers better. My own impression—bolstered by the nervous, overprotective reasoning of the sole correspondent who chose the button fly—is that the vast majority of those who feel more comfortable with buttons suffer from some kind of Freudian castration anxiety, famously articulated by Jerry Seinfeld on an episode of his eponymous sitcom: “That is one place on my wardrobe I do not need sharp interlocking metal teeth.”

The deranged male fantasy in which the zipper becomes a sort of chomping, blood-stained shark’s mouth was visualized in the classic 1998 comedy “There’s Something About Mary,” in whose early scenes Ben Stiller essentially ruins his life for the following decade by zipping up too hastily. All I can say is that it’s never happened to me.

Moreover, according to my research, this particular paranoia afflicts only 10 percent of the male population, so it can’t fully account for the overwhelming fondness for button flies among so many jeans companies. There may be some practical reasons. With a little digging, I found a Reddit thread in which some guy explains, somewhat convincingly, that denim “is a dynamic fabric that will stretch and shrink over time,” while zippers are “a static fastener that will maintain the same size over the life of the clothing”—thus the two cannot perfectly meld. Ultimately you’ll have too much or too little zipper, leading either to breakage or to “bunching,” that dreaded tendency of certain jeans to tent in front of their own accord.

Indeed, this can be a real problem, but I’ve owned well-made zip-fly jeans that do not suffer from it, so the issue doesn’t appear to be insurmountable for zip-fly adherents.

Within the fashion industry, the more compelling argument for button flies relates to the idea of “authenticity.” Blue jeans were invented in 1871; the modern zipper wasn’t invented until 1913. In the age of the smartphone, the zipper may not strike us as a marvel of technological wizardry, yet the Swedish-American engineer Gideon Sundback spent years perfecting it, and it remains a sufficiently complicated contraption that, when one breaks, it is no small job to repair it. In comparison to a button fly, the zipper is noticeably a piece of gadgetry. The invention is a great one: it is more convenient and more powerful than a button closure (which doesn’t have enough inward pull to fasten the two straining sides of a pair of skinny jeans, for example)—yet it is clearly an “invention.” Buttons, meanwhile, have existed since the Bronze Age.

For this reason, button flies have a Luddite quality that, in some circumstances, can be quite hip. The simpler, the better—hence, fixed-gear bicycles and organic, farm-to-table cuisine. Button flies are classic; they are rugged and masculine. The metal discs on my Levi’s resemble manhole covers or old-timey silver dollars. They are bulky and assertive: they gradually mark and dimple the fabric that covers them. They will make you feel like a cowboy—or so the clothing designers believe.

The rest of us, I think, just want to be able to pee.

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