Spring officially begins in about a month. Some people think of bunnies and chicks. Some wonder if they should clean something. I dream of organizing my closet. There’s nothing really wrong with my closet. It has a rack and top shelf on either side. One side has a dresser with room to stand the ironing board I never use. The other has those hangers that hold multiple skirts, pants, shirts and anything else I can hang on them. The shoes are off the floor. But though tidy, the closet doesn’t satisfy. It’s not glamorous. It doesn’t include an easy chair and full mirrors. It doesn’t have lighting that flatters. I conclude my desire for a “perfect” closet is largely the result of advertising, specifically a trend begun by California Closets. Because for most of history people didn’t even have clothes closets. For that matter, they didn’t have that many clothes.
Take a few steps back in European history. Most people didn’t even have a bed, let alone a bedroom. Perhaps the lord of the hall and his lady. And it wasn’t a private room. It was a room for working in and entertaining visitors. It’s where the ladies did needlework.
Most importantly, no one kept their clothes in a closet. Clothes were kept in chests that could be carried. This later evolved into a tall free standing wardrobe with shelves and drawers in an upright box with two doors. The hanging rod wasn’t added until the 1870s. The structure is also called an armoire, because it originally was where knights stored weapons and armor.
That changed in 1880 when ground was broken for luxury apartments at the Dakota. Among the many special features, developers added reach-in closets for clothes – which, of course, meant the bedrooms seemed larger without the clunky wardrobe.
Reach-in closets became common in new construction after World War II. Generally, there was an upper shelf, a rod, and in the master bedroom a slanted shelf on the floor for shoes. Some say this feature was a major selling point for people moving to new suburban areas. By today’s standards the 1950s closet seems small and cramped. But it didn’t have to hold as much.
For example, a recent survey suggests the average American man owns 12 pairs of shoes and the average American woman owns 27 pairs of shoes. So that would be 39 pairs of shoes to fit into a standard master bedroom closet from 1950. And they certainly wouldn’t fit into a 19th Century wardrobe.
It’s this type of ‘wardrobe expansion’ that created the current American frenzy to organize/simplify/maximize our closets. YouTube has what looks like hundreds of videos on the subject, and then there’s Pinterest. From messy to pristine and everything in between.
And then came California Closets
You may not have heard of Neil Balter, but no doubt you’ve encountered the dream of California Closets, a very upscale way to organize your closet once and for all. Neil was eighteen years old in 1978 when he began building shelves in closets, including his own. He deduced there was a market for closet organization and founded California Closets. Neil sold his company in 1990 to Williams Sonoma for a stock swap valued at $11.5 million. Neil went on to found Organizers Direct.
While I don’t exactly blame Neil for my unfulfillable dream of the perfect closet, he did contribute to my mental image.
The reality is: There is no such thing as a perfect closet.
There is a closet that is clean, freshly painted, and organized. Now, if I could just find the perfect container ….
Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons.
Bunny by Tiia Monto. Creative Commons Attribution.
Eleanor of Acquitaine. 14th Century. Public Domain.
Lady Margaret Beaufort in her Prayer Closet by Rowland Lockey. Public Domain.
Wardrobe with open door. Building with Assurance. 1921. Morgan Woodwork Organization. No Known Copyright Restrictions.
Brief History of the Walk-in Closet. Closet Factory.com
Christine Appleby. The History of Closets. Design the Closet. March 21, 2014.
Patrice Apodaca. Closing the Closet. Los Angeles Times. May 12, 1992.
Wen Lee. #StuffCheck: How Many Shoes Do You Own? New Dream. March 1, 2013
Daniel McGinn. Getting Really Into Your Closet. Newsweek. Sept 25,2005.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.