Hanging Room Only : Closet Chaos Has Become a Fact of Life for Many--Blame It on Consumerism


Look at the calendar. You’re now more than a month late on your New Year’s resolution to clean and organize the closet. Every morning it mocks you and your inability to order your life in even the most basic way.

Household organization is, after all, the oldest occupation in the world. When God put Adam in the Garden of Eden, he told him to keep the place straight. The task was greatly simplified since Adam and Eve had no clothes and, by extension, no closet to fuss with.

A peek into the tangle that is most people’s wardrobe demonstrates the depth of humanity’s fall from grace.


“People start piling one thing on top of another and pretty soon they no longer realize what they own,” said Mary Femino, a veteran closet designer with Closet World in Thousand Oaks.

In an evolutionary sense, we have an excuse because we’ve had little experience organizing closets. As late as the 1940s, the closet was still unusual in middle-class homes, said UCSB architectural historian David Gebhardt. Before that, most closets were pieces of furniture.

The wardrobes, chifforobes and armoires that solemnly line the walls in antique stores today were part of the cluttered look that characterized turn-of-the-century decor.

When lighter tastes dispatched bulky Victorian furniture and decorations, it didn’t take long before someone popularized the idea of framing a small part of the room, hanging a door on it, and making the clothes disappear.

“The California bungalow style probably did more to bring clothes closets to the masses than anything else,” Gebhardt said.

At about the same time the closet made its general appearance, the United States was entering a period of unprecedented consumerism, whipped up by that most powerful engine of consumption, the television.


The result: lots of stuff to put in the closet.

Meanwhile, other areas of home storage were shrinking or disappearing altogether. Basements lost ground as contractors tried to make homes more affordable, especially in California.

In Los Angeles, only 4% of homes have any kind of basement, while the average nationwide is 21%, according to the National Housing Survey.

Earthquakes are the reason. Architects said that the cost of reinforcing poured concrete makes it prohibitively expensive for residential construction.

No basement. More stuff in the closet.

Walk-in attics are almost as rare. Kevin Karami, an architect who designs houses for Pardee Construction, said pre-assembled trusses and hip roofs are cheaper and easier to install than gabled roofs, but their low pitch makes them little more than crawl spaces.

No attic. More stuff in the closet.


All of this helps explain why Ventura Councilman Gary Tuttle has pink, plastic buttocks on the top shelf of his closet.

“I built this walk-in when my wife and I got married three years ago,” he said. “She added lots of stuff when she moved in.”


The butt, he said, was part of her Halloween costume last year.

Tuttle’s closet has some similarities to his athletic store. The Inside Track on East Main Street in Ventura is so packed with shoes, shorts and warm-up suits that there’s not enough room to sneeze.

His closet is only slightly less cramped, due in part to the 200 T-shirts stored there. They are a portion of the 1,000 T-shirts that Tuttle estimates he owns, mementos of races in which the former world-class runner has participated.

“I keep the rest out in the garage and rotate them every six months.”

If 1,000 T-shirts seem like an impossible amount, consider the man at the other end of the wardrobe spectrum: Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Robinson, the poster child for sartorial minimalism.

Robinson, a Navy journalist stationed at Point Mugu, has a locker that contains little more than five uniforms, the same amount of clothing sailors are issued in boot camp.

All of it is meticulously stored: Socks are neatly stacked; underwear is folded facing forward. His dress uniform, the one most people recognize from the Cracker Jack box, is stored inside out to protect it from sunlight. Dungarees are folded, according to regulation, so they don’t have a crease.

“To fold them you grab them at the crotch and cuff, then snap the seams together,” he said, demonstrating the technique with a smart pop.


How do sailors manage with so few clothes?

“We changed our clothes every other day in the Persian Gulf,” Robinson said. “Down in Australia, it was maybe once a week.”

Not too many people would be willing to gain closet simplicity at the expense of week-old socks.

But you could gain dominion over your wardrobe by borrowing your brother-in-law’s table saw and building your own shelving--given you know the difference between a dado joint, a butt joint and the hole in the wall where the anchor bolts go.

Non-cabinetmakers with a strong do-it-yourself impulse can visit stores that specialize in modular closet products--the industry term for those white enamel shelves and sliding baskets.

With so many sizes and shapes, modular products are like Lego for adults. And like Lego (a Danish company), the brand names Elfa and Keije suggest that there may be some connection between Scandinavians and things that snap together.


America, on the other hand, is the country of origin for the custom closet business.

In 1978, a young carpenter named Neil Balter found a niche by modifying the space-wasting pole-and-shelf design of most closets. His company, California Closets formerly based in Woodland Hills, became the largest closet remodeler with about 100 franchises worldwide.


Gary Seigel owns the California Closets franchise in Newbury Park. He said the average price for an eight-foot-wide custom closet is about $600, but you certainly could pay more if you add drawer inserts, tie racks and shoe racks.

Seigel said there are hundreds of options for people who want to simplify their lives.

If “hundreds of options to achieve simplicity” seems like an oxymoron that only the 20th Century could produce, architectural historian Gebhardt said it’s happened before.

“Upper class homes in 1870s through the 1890s had drawers, shelving and hanging systems every bit as elaborate and inventive as what you can buy today,” he said. “It’s fascinating the role that closets have had architecturally and even socially.”

Maybe there’s a psychological role, as well. Because the closet is a place where things are hidden, it seems inevitable that sometime, somewhere a Ph.D. candidate will write a dissertation on closets as a psychographic tool for evaluating personality.

Seymour Adler, a New York psychologist whose specialty is understanding personality and how it affects behavior in the home, said that a closet’s orderliness, or lack thereof, can offer insights into aspects of our inner selves. Conscientiousness or desire for social acceptance, for example.

“A person who matches his socks might be detail-oriented and generally careful in mechanical activities, or he might be driven by a desire to make a positive impression on others, to avoid choosing one navy blue and one black sock by accident.”


But are there any repressed desires expressed in the way we store our personal garments? Can we draw conclusions about a subject’s relationship with his mother based on how he stores his socks, whether rolled in fetal position or laid one atop another in Oedipal array.

Do we hang ourselves in effigy each time we hook our shirts on the pole?

Does organizing pocket change by denominations represent an abhorrence of decomposition and ultimately, a denial of death?

Adler thinks not.

“It’s like Freud said: ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’ ”

Calling the Consultants

If your closets are so clogged that you can’t dig out by yourself, here is a partial list of companies that specialize in customizing closets.

* California Closet Co., 2588 Teller Road in Newbury Park, 656-1070.

* The Closet Factory, 411 N. Lombard St., Oxnard, 988-7861.

* Closet Crafters, 1792 Callens Road, Ventura.

* Discount Clozet, 674 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 494-7993

* Closets To Go, 647-4919.