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Samuel Pepys had three closets. He used them for various purposes: sometimes he wrote in them, sometimes he prayed in them, sometimes he had casual sex in them. In 1668, his wife happened upon him with one of his lovers, “embracing the girl con my hand sub su coats”. He also used his closets to store the tennis ball-sized stone he had removed from his bladder, along with maps, curiosities and a hole drilled in the wall so that Pepys could peep at the maid.
Pepys’s closets were, like today’s walk-in wardrobes, extravagantly decorated. Then redecorated. He designed a lavish gilded case for his books with glazed doors and cornices carved into acanthus leaves. A closet was not just a place to stuff the coats — it was a space in which to invite influential guests, to build alliances and wangle an invitation to other noble, preferably royal, closets.
From the intimate chambers of the 17th century to the “drive-through” wardrobes of modern Hollywood McMansions, closets harbour both clothes and naked ambition. Today’s walk-in wardrobes are opulent, capacious, custom-made ventricles. Egyptians stored their clothes in baskets made of reeds; Ancient Greeks and Romans folded theirs in chests; modern fashionistas showcase them in garage-size rooms. Pepys’s contemporaries retreated to their closets to contemplate the art hung inside them. The contemporary equivalent might be wall-to-wall shoes back-lit like museum pieces.
Figuratively, closets have represented a place where things are concealed: skeletons, childhood monsters, even sexuality. In reality they are now a space where things are displayed: walk-in wardrobes proliferate on photo-sharing websites such as Instagram and Pinterest. In 2008, a posse of teenagers broke into the Hollywood Hills home of socialite Paris Hilton. They consulted the internet to ascertain where she lived and charted her movements via the tabloids, Twitter and Facebook to ensure she was away from home. The gang — dubbed “The Bling Ring” after their arrest for stealing $3m in cash and belongings from celebrities’ closets — referred to their burglaries as “going shopping”.
There is nothing closeted about Hilton’s wardrobe, which has featured in Vogue and — in a meta-theatrical flourish — Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film adaptation The Bling Ring. On screen the walk-in wardrobe has come to represent an apex of wealth and brand-as-status symbol. “We get a lot of references to the Sex and the City wardrobe,” says Laura Hammett, whose London-based interior design studio specialises in high-end residential projects. “Everyone also loves the [style of the] Dior boutique — pale and feminine with silk carpets. It’s about creating a retail experience at home.” Clients have requested everything from climate-controlled fur cupboards to a wardrobe whose contents are searchable via an iPad.
Lisa Adams — who has a degree in chemistry and an MBA — started LA Closet Design in 2007 when, she says, being a closet designer wasn’t a profession. Her clients include Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Kris Jenner, matriarch of the reality television programme Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Adams’ walk-in wardrobes have housed not only clothes but breakfast bars, refrigerators for cosmetics, dance poles, training shoe displays for athletes and, once, a putting green.
“It’s a personal space,” says Adams, “an opportunity to invoke your personality.” Her pièce de résistance is a three-storey closet in a Los Angeles house with a staircase through it and an island on each floor: everyday clothes go on the top level, tailored outfits in the middle and jewellery on a bottom floor that is accessed using the client’s biometric information.
Francis Sultana, a London-based furniture and interior designer, sees elaborate dressing rooms as one of the follies of modern consumerism. “A lot of it comes from the glamour of the American 1940s and ’50s movies where walk-in closets extended from the master bedroom.” When Jacqueline Kennedy moved into the White House in 1961 she enlisted Sister Parish, the society decorator, to renovate the family accommodation, including the first lady’s dressing room.
In the US, migration to the suburbs following the second world war allowed for more space and, in turn, planned communities such as those developed by William Levitt. He built his Levittown suburb on Long Island quickly and cheaply thanks to modular construction methods. Influential architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright championed modular housing and, by the 1970s, modular design had extended to furniture and interiors.
Italian manufacturer Porro creates walk-in wardrobes using modular systems. Lorenzo Porro, now director of marketing, started to produce modular furniture in 1978. “The idea was to create something flexible that was also designed specifically for the space in mind,” says Porro. “Modular doesn’t mean one-size-fits-all — it means bespoke.” Porro’s starting point for the company’s dressing rooms — customised in wood, iron, burnished brass and transparent glass — is function and space. “Modular furniture comes from an architectural point of view,” he says. “You design the space in the way you do with architecture.”
He is not the only architect to treasure the intricacies of closet design. When the writer Deborah Copaken Kogan stopped to use the bathroom in Richard Rogers’ immaculate Chelsea house she snooped in his sock drawer to discover a honeycomb organiser replete with brightly coloured balls of socks against a yellow background. Kogan described the moment as a religious awakening.
Sultana — who admits that he can’t abide a hanger that doesn’t match — embraces this discipline and works with a lot of clients who do too. “If you have more than one home you need to know where things are,” he says. “It’s the most complicated room I do in a project. Certain men have very strong ideas about their dressing rooms: they don’t want their trousers folded over a hanger but hanging straight down. They want their shirts folded, not hanging. And they might have 46 of the same white shirt. It’s all about discipline for them.”
For most, a lavish walk-in wardrobe is as fantastical as the closet through which CS Lewis’s children clamber into Narnia. In 2008, a Japanese homeless woman was discovered to have been living, undetected, in a man’s closet for almost a year. Yet sometimes the grandest spaces contain humble closets with rich secrets. Peek into the broom closet in the Palace of Westminster and you will find a plaque with a photo of the suffragette Emily Davison placed there on the sly by the late MP Tony Benn in commemoration of her bravery in the pursuit of women’s rights.