The Closet

David Coggins on the mysteries of our most personal space

Every closet tells a story. Real estate agents say the first place prospective tenants go when scouting an apartment is to the windows, to assess the view. The next stop? The closet. The closet is about possibility, who we may become on a given day. It can also be about impossibility, when it becomes the source of friction between loved ones. One may think their partner is subverting a sense of orderliness or willfully commandeering more than his or her share of hard-earned space.

The partner critic wonders if a messy spouse has somehow been locked out of the closet. Why else would all those clothes be lying around? There is an enduring issue of where the closet ends and the room begins. Some feel that a closet should be self-contained, its contents out of sight, with a door that shuts firmly. Others take a more expansive view that the closet includes the general area around it: a chair to drape things on, a banister to neatly support an array of scarves or sweaters, the floor covered by shoe collections that manage to expand like a colony of invasive species.

The issue is divisive. Friends may speak anonymously, describing their spouses’ relationships to their closets as “a travesty,” presumably half-joking that it is “threatening our marriage.” The basis of these complaints seems to rest on the question of how we get dressed. In particular, do we need to make a visual assessment of everything we own before we begin to imagine those things on us? For those of us who wear a coat and tie, the decision often comes down to how whimsical we want our neckwear to be. For others, particularly style-savvy members of the fair sex, there are far more complex decisions to be made, far more clothes to try on, assess, discard.

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This leads to a complicated relationship with hangers. Some of us who value order in our lives keep our clothes on hangers at all times. Oh, that blessedly simple life! Others, you know who you are, take a more haphazard approach to constructing an ensemble. The four or five possible iterations are left strewn across the chair, the bed, the floor, none meeting your high bar of approval.

Our relationship with our closet tends toward disappointment: The desire always seems for it to be larger. People I queried about closets repeatedly described how small theirs are, as if that was the only side of the equation. The other question, of course, is how much the closet is being forced to hold. I found closet proprietors are far less critical of their lifelong accumulation of clothes. “What are you suggesting, that I get rid of all my sweaters?” one friend asked with a flash of accusation in her eyes, as if I had suggested she abandon a beloved pet.

There is a fantasy side to the closet. We imagine dream closets, and films show encyclopedic spaces. Think of Sam Rothstein’s collection of vivid suits in Casino. Robert De Niro’s character can choose from any color across the visible spectrum, which perfectly describes his character as a flamboyant expert gambler.

I recently had the privilege of being invited into a gentleman’s closet in an expansive apartment on Park Avenue. Does that sound strange? It was less a closet than a room — in fact, it has two separate entrances and contains a chair. It seems perfectly logical that one would sit there and contemplate his singular collection of English tweeds and handmade shoes. It was one of the more civilized rooms I’ve entered.

My sister reminds me that not everyone keeps clothes on wooden hangers equal distances apart. Some observers would even consider that strange. But I believe a closet should be welcoming and easy to navigate; it should help make decisions easier. But more often than not, a closet instills a sense of dread. It takes on a life of its own — where did all these clothes come from? And why, if there are so many, can’t I find anything to wear?

Now there’s the rise of “closet consultants” who help you find balance between enduring classics and misbegotten impulse purchases. There are closet-design companies whose ads show Zen-like rooms of pale wood that look more like a sushi restaurant than a closet. No doubt they help their owners, but they strike me as impersonal. Where is the sense of the past? What is a closet if not a physical space that represents the sum of decisions we’ve made? Some of our decisions are brilliant, some prove embarrassing. But the personal closet is evocative, a metaphor, consciously or unconsciously, because it continues to represent our style made visible. BG

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