Closet Cases

By staff February 1, 2007

The closet has become the new frontier of home design and changed the way we buy, store, think about, and even wear our clothes. That’s what I discovered when I asked some Sarasota clotheshorses to let their closets come out of the closet. What they showed me were incredibly revealing personal spaces that are used for recreation, contemplation, experimentation and pure fun. But before we get to them, let me explain why I’m trying to catch up with the trend.

I grew up spending summer and winter vacations in my grandmother’s old Florida house in Palm Beach. My room had a closet with a louvered door that was hard to open, and it was packed to the ceiling with mystery boxes of many sizes. They were filled with my grandmother’s purchases from a lifetime of travels abroad that she never used and never would—but was committed to keeping ’til death did them part.

On rainy winter mornings she’d take us kids on a prolonged safari into those boxes. Boxes with filigree jewelry from Spain, pearls from Majorca, long white leather gloves with buttons at the wrist, beaded cashmere sweaters from Hong Kong with names of relatives who’d passed on—Belle, Nannette, Esther. Moroccan leather boxes and copper pots, rococo porcelain and colored Bohemian glass filled the room. When we came to stay, no one ever dreamed of trying to use that closet for clothes.

Our family house on Martha’s Vineyard, which was built for the actress Katherine Cornell in 1937 by Eric Gugler (who also designed the Oval Office at the White House), didn’t have much in the way of storage space, either. The door leading to the master bedroom led into what looked like a closet. There, on pegs, hung our collection of rain slickers and warm jackets. Rubber boots, like the kind Christopher Robin wore, were lined up on a shelf above. Hapless first-time dinner guests, blundering around in the dark looking for a loo, thought they’d mistaken the directions and come to a dead end. It was a good joke. You had to push a wall open at the end to get into the master bedroom. Once there, you’d find a tiny bathroom and an even smaller cedar closet with pegs and shelves enough for clothes in a part of the world where the styles never changed and no one dressed for dinner.

In my smaller bedroom, I had one peg, three shallow shelves and a trunk at the bottom of my bed for my clothes. Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer live there now. Diane didn’t know what my fish poacher was for, and I’m sure she doesn’t go clamming in the flats for lunch like I did. Mike put in air conditioning, but I have no idea what they did about the closets. For many years, my little Sarasota houses had shallow closets with those awful louvered doors, white wire racks like something out of a warehouse, and the same pathetic array of casual clothes I’d had in Massachusetts.

The modern closet has evolved slowly. In Europe there weren’t any until flush toilets came in. Even in the great houses, where wealthy married couples required separate sitting rooms and sometimes separate bedrooms, closets simply didn’t exist. In the New World, settlers used trunks and wall-mounted pegs to store their few possessions. The walk-in closet did not appear until the prosperity after World War II created a demand for new and bigger houses and the mandate to fill them with more things and more clothes and accessories. The beautifully accessorized closet, however, is brand-new. Luxury closets are the happening thing now.

Recently I went on a shopping tour of downtown condos. I had expected to see the miles of granite counter tops and marble floors, spa tubs, separate showers with pulsing jets, even separate toilets for him and her. But I was surprised by an array of closets that were bigger than my first New York apartment.

When I finally bought a condo thus equipped, I wasn’t sure how I was going to use all that space. My new closets are like Madison Avenue boutiques. They’re wood-paneled, with glass doors covering two levels of hanging racks, and they have banks of drawers for intimate apparel and glass-fronted display cabinets for purses and hats and shoes and other things I don’t have many of. All the years of tiny closets put me in the habit of buying only what would fit (the closet) and divesting what I knew I would never wear again. All right, so my wardrobe also got a lot thinner when I grew a little plumper.

It made me wonder how other people’s closets look and how they’re dealing with the space boom. I started foraging around in some special local closets to find out. Frankly, I was also hoping to scavenge a few unwanted items to fill my cavernous spaces.

You’d be surprised by how many people didn’t want me anywhere near their stuff. Diane Roskamp left town and wouldn’t come back in time. Sally Jaret, who has the most amazing hats and dresses and accessories, keeps her closet locked so that not even relatives can go in. Myrna Band would not hear of it, and Margaret Wise didn’t want to tidy up the mess in hers.

Then there were the people whose closets I rejected on the grounds of content. Deb Knowles has wonderfully huge closets in her master suite, which includes a lovely large bathroom. But Deb’s clothes are all black. I’m not kidding. Every single thing. I once offered her my red snakeskin Kelly bag, and she actually shuddered. “I like my clothes to fade away,” she said. The closet was great, but what kind of attitude is that? Never mind. Her clothes are probably too small for me, anyway.

Mary Ann Robinson’s favorite color is purple. I figured I’d have better luck there, and I was not disappointed. The minute Mary Ann saw her condo, with its splendid view of the boats bobbing at their moorings in the bay, she knew the closets were not going to be adequate. She reconfigured the space to accommodate her collection (which is mostly from Saks). The kitchen was made smaller, and a wall was closed in on one of the public rooms and opened on the bedroom side to create a closet in the master suite from what was the dining room. Now, there’s renovation. Mary Ann’s former dining room became big enough for everything but her formal wear, which lives in the guest-room closet. And of course husband Robbie has his own closet elsewhere. He was hiding in it when I came to visit.

Closet gurus show you how to use the space in the most efficient way, with double hanging racks, a shoe wall or narrow shelves all the way to the ceiling for shoes, and somewhere a chest of drawers, because so many people don’t want dressers or bureaus cluttering up their bedrooms anymore. Mary Ann’s closet has her shoe wall on the left, her collection of St. John straight on. A lot of it is red and purple to match her bubbly personality. On the shelves above are several wigs she never wears and her fun hats, many of them Ray Pepper—whoever that is. She has Eliza Doolittle’s hat from My Fair Lady and masks from fondly remembered balls. Her chest of drawers hides more racks of clothes behind it. She has different sections for the seasons, for Aspen and for Africa. And she does not share or wear other people’s clothes, but divests regularly at Designing Women. She may keep shoes and purses for a long time but gets tired of seeing herself in the same outfits after a few seasons.

Every detail of B.J. Creighton’s house was designed with care, and her closet has the place of honor in her affections. “This is my playroom,” she told me. “It’s also a treasure trove, like having one’s very own boutique.”

All those designer jackets and shells and party clothes perfectly arranged looked delicious. I couldn’t help noticing that pretty much everything is my size. B.J. never has to worry about where anything is. Suit jackets hang high on one wall above pants and skirts in matching colors. Blouses and sweaters live in one section, warm-up suits and clothes for different seasons in others. Cocktail attire has its own place, too. And when she comes home to change, she doesn’t drop her things on the floor like some people we know. Instead, she hangs the just-worn items in the section for clothes that need to be steamed or cleaned.

B.J.’s closet is all about memories. Photos of family members adorn the shelves. She has things that were worn by her mother and grandmother, as well as shallow drawers of costume jewelry, including the bangle bracelet that was given to her grandmother in 1914, passed on to her mother in 1944, and to her in 1967. Her custom wedding dress is there, with hats from years ago and yesterday. On shelving behind glass doors is her collection of compacts. In other boxes high on shelves are treasures only she knows are there—designer purses and shoes and hats. They’re for when the need arises, not for display, she said. Mixed in with the expensive stuff are her Target and Dillard’s specials. “I don’t care where things came from, or their cost. I like the fun of mixing things up,” she says, and is not afraid to wear an expensive suit with a purse from Target and $29 shoes.

The size of B.J.’s closet means that she never has to say she doesn’t have anything to wear. She can always find something to fit the occasion. It also means she doesn’t have to say good-bye to clothes that don’t fit anymore. And she’s keeping her size zero jeans (thank you very much) for the day when she’ll be able to wear them again.

When I suggested starting a clothes swap, she was so there. Since she never wears her evening gowns twice, she immediately offered the satin salmon gown I so admired from her evening gown closet down the hall. Maybe some other time.

Going into Susan Karp’s house is like entering the world of the Erté. It was built not long ago, but is so Art Deco you would swear you’ve gone back to the 1920s or ’30s. The previous owners wanted to create a house with the aura of having been on the beach half a century or more, and it has that. All the bedrooms have the same cedar closets of my Martha’s Vineyard house, but these are sizable. Susie’s second-story boudoir is a magnificent perch with Gulf views even from the spa tub in the bathroom.

Susan’s love of beautiful, turn-of-the-last-century art objects is apparent everywhere. In the bathroom, which is part of the closet, the collection of antique combs makes you want to grow your hair very long. An array of antique perfume bottles lines up along the sink and long shelf above. Covering the dressing table and filling its drawers is a magnificent collection of designer costume jewelry.

But Susie is bored with shopping now and no longer interested in acquiring more. Luckily, she doesn’t need to. She has things she’s never worn, items with the tags still on that she’s forgotten about. This is a common problem with the too-big closet. People buy things, put them away and forget they’re there. Susie’s closet has her shoes in a row down the middle, fanciful ones in every color—green, pink, turquoise. Chanel biker boots, every purse she’s ever worn. “I have trouble letting go,” she admits. She has a whole closet for wraps and scarves, for travel clothes, for evening wear. “The great thing about it is if I dig around long enough, I can always find exactly what I want to wear,” she says.

Pat Hanly doesn’t divest, either. She once worked for the president of Saks in New York, so she knows how to buy. Then she and her husband, Tom, were in the clothing manufacturing business. They created the Judy Hornby line, using many Liberty of London fabrics. For a while, the Hanlys lived on a boat moored at the 79th Street Boat Basin in Manhattan. Not wishing to travel anywhere on the boat, Pat insisted that the engine be removed so that she could use the engine room for her closet. On the tennis courts, however, she’s known for her extensive collection of sportswear and the colorful jewelry she wears with it. She’s a purse fanatic, too, with 128 Louis Vuitton purses—all of which she wears. LV in Paris made a bag just for her tennis racket, and now she can’t buy one with a different head.

Here, the Hanlys have the kind of house that would fit perfectly in Connecticut. It’s wood and rambling and full of whimsy. A million teapots and other collectibles cover every surface. The place was built by an artist of the old school, with no bathroom or closet in the master bedroom. Tub, clothes, water closet—everything was in plain sight. The Hanlys added the amenities.

Pat’s closet was built to accommodate those purses. In addition to the Louis Vuittons, she has gorgeous Mary Frances evening purses with Florida scenes on them and Hermès bags with removable handles. She also keeps her treasured Hornby dresses from the old days, her wedding and engagement dresses, her hats and shoes…and that tennis wardrobe. “I would stop playing,” she says, “but I have too many outfits.” Pat also loves jewelry and has built a dresser of thin drawers for her beads because she likes to make her own. She, too, uses her closet as a dream space, a muse, and a place to refresh herself and a lot more than just deciding what to wear.

Until my closet foray, my philosophy had been, keep more than one evening purse? Why? When I finally ended up at Jacqueline Morton’s door, my head was spinning with all the stuff I didn’t know I should have bought when I had the opportunity, or kept when I thought I didn’t need it.

The construction and content of Jacqueline’s closet are in a class all their own. To get there, you travel down a passage wide enough for a built-in desk and dressing tables on opposite walls.

Cabinet Innovations did the work, including the moldings and over-the-top trim that makes you think you’re in Paris. Brocade insets in frames hang on the small amount of wall that isn’t used for storage; a settee is the throne in front of a three-way mirror. The closet meanders around a few corners into lovely secret places where hats can be seen on a hat stand, and the shelves above display evening wear from many periods. This is a museum-quality collection of vintage and new, designer and flea market, clothing—the very best of everything that includes suits and dresses from her mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were famous beauties who loved fashion. These clothes will probably never be worn again, but they are old, frequently visited friends that will never go.

Once a retail buyer for a store on St. Armands Circle, Jacqueline still has a passion for acquiring new and beautiful things, and she can’t resist a Paris shoe sale. Her glass-fronted shoe cabinets have beveled edges, and the shoes inside are many and marvelous. “Aren’t they just works of art?” she asked, holding up a pair of shoes so beautiful they almost took my breath away.

When Madame Morton sees something pretty, she doesn’t care where it came from, or if it only costs $12. Quality, gorgeous workmanship and interesting design are the driving force behind her shopping. “When you find something truly special like this, how can you leave it behind?” she asks, holding up a yummy beaded dress from the ’60s that looks to me like a Pierre Cardin. (Pink, and it would have fit me perfectly.) This $20 item hangs on a padded Neiman Marcus hanger waiting for the day its owner becomes inspired and puts it together with brand-new designer shoes from Paris, very beautiful earrings and a hat with a feather. A sewing machine lives in that closet, making it almost homey, too, for Jacqueline can pluck a piece of priceless but slightly faded brocade from a sell-out bin in an antique shop and sew up a skirt in a second that will magically match a jacket in her closet and knock your socks off when you see her out. “Dressing can be a lot of fun,” she says.

Sarasota resident Leslie Glass is the author of 14 novels, including For Love and Money and the best-selling April Woo mystery series.

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