The average size of a closet in a modern U.S. home? A healthy 6 feet by 8 feet, which just might be enough space for my admittedly large collection of shoes (gulp, maybe 100 pairs), new cocktail dresses and vintage coats, with at least a corner left over for my husband’s stuff.
But the Jazz Age builders of our 1921 rowhouse didn’t have a time machine to see what future buyers might like — or any inkling of what clotheshorses Americans in general, and I specifically, would become.
Which explains why, though the Mount Pleasant abode we bought last spring came with many charms (a breezy porch, crown moldings, honeyed antique floors), it lacked any reasonable amount of closet space.
As in, over 1,800 square feet and two floors, there were two measly, 3-foot-wide closets — perhaps enough rack room for a 12-year-old boy who wears the same snowboard shirt every day.
Why did our new-old house have such puny closets, and why weren’t there more of them? Did the flappers and gangsters — or, more likely, Harding-era government drones — who had first lived here wear the same outfits every day?
“People didn’t have as many clothes,” says Toronto fashion historian Jonathan Walford. “Most people stored what they had in trunks or armoires. Closets were just for hanging wool coats.”
Still, during home inspection, I kept hunting for phantom storage. Surely we’d missed a hall closet. By my not-very-scientific measuring (a Club Monaco scarf makes a great yardstick, BTW), I estimated we had room for an eighth of our stuff, which would mean dressing in nothing but black (me) or parting with a huge collection of baseball hats (my husband). Visions of sweaters heaped in the kitchen and piles of boots in the den went through my head. Does “Hoarders” have a “Buried by Fashion” edition?
We went into “This Old House” land knowing storage might be a problem. “There are lots of closet challenges with older homes. Spaces can be small! You have to start thinking vertically, or outside the box,” says Alabama-based professional organizer Amanda Le Blanc, star of the Style Network’s new clutter-busting show, “The Amandas” (premieres Jan. 30 at 8 p.m.).
So I decided that, since I didn’t really have a closet, I’d build one. Project Dressing Room began. Like many 75-plus-year-old houses in D.C., our pad has what I call Uncle Fester’s Room, a weeny, rather useless space fit only for a tiny kid or a weird relative. Ours, just across from the master bedroom, measures 8 by 10 — enough for all my clothes and then some.
At first, I envisioned filling the room floor to ceiling with hanging bars. But that would have blocked off the little rectangle’s door and window, making it more prison cell than chick cave. “You want it to be like a little department store,” said Anna Kahoe, co-owner of GoodWood (1428 U St. NW; 202-986-3640), who turned the basement of her last house into a glam space of clothing racks and mirrors. “It’ll prolong the joy you get from shopping and help you see more of your clothes.”
After debating ordering closet parts online and doing it all myself, I decided the oddness of the space (a radiator in one corner, a wonky, 1-foot-wide closet filled with HVAC pipes in another) meant I needed pros. I splurged on Arlington’s Eco-nize (Eco-nize.com), which, for a little less than $2,000, crafted me ashy-gray wooden shelving units with hanging bars, spots for shoes and bag cubbies. (To save money and DIY, try Easyclosets.com or John Louis Home, a wooden system sold on Amazon.com).
Eco-nize measured the room (and counted my shoes!), then came back a few weeks later to noisily install the “closet.” The resulting dressing room’s new shelves soared close to the 10-foot ceiling, giving me enough storage to finally start unpacking.
At Le Blanc’s urging, I organized everything — bars of skirts, shelves of pumps — by color. “That helps you know what you’ve got, and can mean you’ll purge more and shop less,” she said.
Sure enough, I found I had 27 black blazers, enough to outfit the Rolling Stones for several reunion tours. A few got dropped off at Goodwill (sorry, Mick!).
Jewelry went into neat, velvet-lined drawers; my tights and flats got neatly organized into hanging bags on the back of the room’s doors. And suddenly, there was bin-free, mess-free zen where there had been chaos, and storage where there had been none.
Adding personality to the room — framed fashion illustrations from a Paris flea market on the walls, a sparkly Pottery Barn chandelier on the ceiling, old timey glass pulls on the drawers — made me almost as happy as getting organized. A vintage vanity table from Craigslist and a big Ikea mirror meant I could blow dry my hair and put on my makeup in the room, pretending to be some movie star.
“It ends up being about relishing your feminine side,” says Kahoe. “You’ll buy fewer items of clothing, but see it more and keep it in better shape.”
And who knows — seeing all my stuff on display might even inspire me to shop less. Which I’m sure will help my husband stop resenting his crummy, tiny closet.
You don’t have to buy all your storage gear at the Container Store. Vintage items — like this relish tray (search for similar ones on eBay) — both corral stuff and add personality. Other ideas: Mount an old rake head on the wall to hang necklaces; use old wooden crates to hold shoes.
Don’t Mix & Match
“Be consistent with your containers, otherwise you’ll get a bit of a jumble,” says pro organizer Amanda Le Blanc. The Container Store’s latest lines of closet tamers boast chic prints like Firenze (shown, $15-$30, Container Store).
Hook ’Em High
“In older homes, utilize vertical spaces,” says Container Store spokeswoman Olescia Hanson. One way to do this: With attractive hooks (try World Market or Anthropologie for similar styles). And don’t forget a step stool to help you reach higher items.
Use Every Spare Space
In a bedroom or dressing room, mine every inch for storage, such as under the bed and the back of the door, ideal for this little black dress jewelry organizer ($20, Container Store).