How Americans arrived at converting rooms into closets

Is it as simple as Americans own a lot of stuff so they then need giant closets?

Photo by Victoria Borodinova on Pexels.com

That model held for the next century or so, until the postwar American economy lurched into motion, setting the country on the conveyor belt that would eventually deliver it to Kylie Jenner’s mirrored hall of designer handbags, a tour of which has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube. Prosperity settled in the suburbs, where millions of families moved into progressively bigger homes. Today, the average new single-family home is more than 1,000 square feet larger than it was in the early 1970s, even though new homes have, on average, fewer people living in them. (Regardless of Americans’ lack of need for giant houses, our zoning laws create them; many local governments have made building apartments or condos effectively illegal, and they are supported in this by homeowners, many of whom fear attracting less wealthy neighbors but welcome anything that pumps up property values, such as bigger houses down the street. Developers are happy to comply.)…

American homes not only have more space and fewer people than they once did; they also have a lot more stuff. “We’re conditioned that we need the right thing for the right activity,” Jill LaRue-Rieser, the senior vice president and chief merchandising officer for the custom-storage company California Closets, told me. As clothing in particular has gotten less expensive and more bountiful, big closets have become a selling point unto themselves. “The builders really figured it out,” she said. “If they could hook women with enough space for their shoes, they could sell the whole house.” Which is why, for decades, the country’s closets have had no reason to do anything but grow, fueling the perpetual-motion machine of the modern wardrobe—you have more space, so you don’t hesitate to buy more stuff, but eventually your big new closets seem cramped and small. At that point, maybe it’s time for a new place with even bigger closets…

Bradford said that converting a spare room to a closet has become particularly popular in recent years because it accommodates various internet home-design fantasies: natural lighting, room for a center island, seating areas, and space to show off particularly beloved collections of sunglasses or handbags or sneakers. “If people have something they value a lot, they want to create a perfect space for it, to highlight it,” she told me…

In other words, extreme closets may be starting to resemble those of, say, 16th-century Europe: a collection of prized things on loving display, a comfortable seating area in the innermost sanctum of one’s home, maybe a little desk area to work in solitude. “It’s about being proud of your space, feeling really good and calm in your space,” Adams said. Just like the Renaissance-era closet enthusiasts—though they probably lacked a wine or coffee station.

Jay Pritchett was ahead of his time: what America really needs are closets, closets, closets.

As the article notes elsewhere, if HGTV is to be trusted in this matter, a lot of bedrooms have been turned into large closets. This is a formal statement: a homeowner wants a large closet with particular features. But, this is a formal declaration of what has been happening for decades as Americans used spare rooms, attics, basements, and garages to store all of their items. As a person with a fair amount of stuff myself, I was intrigued by the first neighborhood we lived in as homeowners where all of the units had one car garages. Very few people parked in those garages. Instead, they held various items that did not fit in the relatively-small-by-today’s-standards 1,450 square foot residents.

I do think the curating and display of one’s possessions is worth noting. Today, it is not just about owning items but also about having ways to organize and show these items. Traditionally, closets are not something a homeowner might show to visitors. But, convert a room into a closet, put in an island and custom shelving plus a dazzling light fixture and this is now part of the home and possessions tour. How much time people actually spend in the expanded closet does not matter; this is a luxury item for the homeowner and the visitor.

I wonder if the reduced size of American households plays a large role here. If households have three-plus bedrooms but only a few members living in the home, there is now a free room. This could become an office; this has also picked up in recent years, even before working from home due to COVID-19, due to an interest in a clearly-defined and purposeful space. But, it could also become a closet or a theater room or a workout space.

The sociology of cleaning out your closet

A wardrobe consultant with a PhD in visual sociology discusses how cleaning out a closet can lead to catharsis:

Akbari explains that we are emotionally attached to items of clothing and their history. Sorting out our clothes is a therapeutic process that goes beyond aesthetics. Her focus is on the relationship between the visual appearance and self-presentation and how this affects one’s ability to claim power. Clothing allows people to play with the different facets of their identity.

The people that reach out to wardrobe consultants are generally going through some form of transition. They could be wanting a new job or dating new people. It’s an identity construction, the shedding of an old self and embracing of something new…

“Our clothes are an extension of our bodies and our identity and our social success depends on our ability to communicate, our intelligence, and our appearance — we come as a package.”

This seems a Goffmanian take on closets and clothes.

Perhaps this also explains why people are unwilling to clean out a closet full of clothes – they are not just clothes but rather symbolic objects that say something about the individual and making decisions about such symbols can be difficult. Having a full closet implies that one has a lot of options about one’s identity while removing some of those clothes might close off some of those identities.