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Peek inside the wardrobe: a new history

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Far from being a mere storage device, the wardrobe has acted as personal bank, war funder, room divider and even a portal to a magical world

Join me in this room within a room. A strange invitation I admit: we usually leave our clothes here. It is a space within our most intimate spaces – sanctum sanctorum – where we divest ourselves of garments, reeking perhaps of our bodies, to be consumed perhaps by moths. Why are we in here? We are children, maybe, or historians. The distinction is irrelevant; our curiosity has led us here. The wardrobe will yield its secrets – we have only to open the door.

The most popular wardrobe today is the Ikea PAX system. Starting with units 500mm wide – perfect for those forced to dwell in box rooms by London’s refusal to adequately house its workers – the PAX can be expanded to cover an entire wall with its mirrored doors, turning any room into a ballet studio for the modern narcissist. Whether the peacefulness connoted by its name is naturally associated with self-assembly furniture seems questionable, but thankfully the PAX has its own dedicated planning app so that you can design your dream modular wardrobe without using an Allen key.

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Pauline Baynes’ drawings in CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Image: © CS Lewis PTE Ltd 1950 

This is the virtual wardrobe in the realm of consumption, where fantasy of the most banal type is fostered to breed desire. Virtuality also makes a more glamorous incursion into the realm of daily use in the film Clueless. Here, Alicia Silverstone’s character shows her digitally operated wardrobe to her amazed lower-class friend, using a computer to test out different outfits before summoning them from the robotic valet. In contrast to the creaky chipboard of the Ikea PAX, this wardrobe speaks of abundance, luxury and, perhaps, excess. 

The wardrobe originates in such a milieu, since ordinary people have only very recently had the means to accumulate clothing beyond the necessities. And the wardrobe, which is now a piece of furniture within a room, began as a room unto itself. The ‘warderobe’ – a place for keeping clothes and other valuables – entered the English language from old French around the beginning of the 14th century (the ‘garderobe’ joins us at the same time and with the same meaning, only later becoming a euphemism for the toilet). Items of furniture such as the cassone or wedding chests of Renaissance Italy served a similar function, but the crucial element of hanging clothes descends from the wardrobe as room. 

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The king’s wardrobe, which became akin to a bank, is commemorated at its site between Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul’s in London

The noble wardrobe escaped the confines of a room in medieval Britain, albeit in an expansionary rather than diminutive manner. The king’s wardrobe was an itinerant department of government from around 1200, following the monarch on his travels, and then putting down roots to occupy an entire building near Blackfriars Bridge from around 1360. Here the accoutrements of state were carefully maintained and, by virtue of their proximity to the body of the king, their guardians became administrators of the royal household. They were also its funders, using the treasures they kept to raise loans with Italian bankers. This transformation of a wardrobe into a personal bank allowed the king to escape aristocratic interference and the wardrobe occasionally surpassed the exchequer in funding the king’s wars, to baronial disapproval.

Less-grandiose modern wardrobes like the PAX might seem very far from the realm of statecraft, but the erstwhile function of the king’s wardrobe should be seen not merely as a pungent historical nugget but as a demonstration of the political implications of clothes and their place in our households, though these are often made invisible behind mirrored doors. The king’s bejewelled knick-knacks may have been replaced by Bourdieu’s social capital, but the dividends can be just as real.

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The Haunted Furniture, 1888, by James Ensor, depicts every child’s nightmare of something spooky in the closet. Image: © DACS 2018

The wardrobe stand-alone item of furniture also has its origins in the Middle Ages. Reimagined versions of such objects were created in the latter half of the 19th century by peculiar Gothic Revivalist William Burges, whose crenellated and heavily painted wardrobes conjure a dream world of knights errant and guild workshops. These containers undoubtedly gelled with their contents – only handcrafted garments would do for these bourgeois fantasists – but sat strangely with the new world of mass-produced pret-à-porter. 

The quest for an adequate furniture for modern lives resulted in the plain lines and unadorned surfaces of designers such as Eileen Gray. Her wardrobes are ambiguous objects: somewhere between furniture and architecture, they divide rooms as well as storing clothes. They also straddle another divide between architectural languages. This can be seen particularly clearly in her wardrobe for the guest room of her villa E.1027. A contemporaneous photograph shows its door flung open to reveal a gleaming interior of glass shelves and diffuse top-lighting. On these shelves, hats and folded items float evenly in the glowing spaceless space, clearly conjuring the image of a shop window. Here, clothes can be brought home to be placed in a protective bubble of retail space, where the lustre of the untouched commodity is preserved as long as possible, confusing the borders of the domestic and the commercial.

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Eileen Gray’s wardrobe designs span the divide between furniture and architecture – villa E.1027 in Cap Martin, France. Photograph: Eileen Gray Archive / Peter Adam 

This infection of the home’s very heart by the language of capital is escaped (or at least the attempt is made) by other wardrobe fantasists besides Burges and his antiquarian peers. Generations of children have been enticed into one particular wardrobe, its door transformed into a portal to a magical world of Christian propaganda by CS Lewis. A seemingly more adult escapism has been proffered by David Lynch, who hides Kyle MacLachlan in a wardrobe so he can observe Dennis Hopper’s abuse of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. Despite the film’s disturbing violence, this vantage point infantilises the voyeur, reducing him to hide-and-seek games, thereby placing him in the position of the child in the Freudian primal scene. The eternal return of childhood testifies to the constrained world view of Lynch and his bourgeois obsessions.

Lynch’s closet voyeurism is of course also a play on a stock figure, the amorous adventurer forced to hide by the unexpected return of the cuckolded partner. This is given a more standard farcical treatment in R Kelly’s 33-part ‘hiphopera’, Trapped in the Closet. In each three-minute episode, Kelly – who is himself often visualised observing the action from a closet – narrates a story of marital infidelity, singing each part and incorporating bizarre anecdotes and characters in a web of sexual deceit. Initially hard to place, it once seemed an idiotic idea spun out to form a structure so Byzantine that it almost elicited admiration, but in light of the many accusations of sexual abuse levelled at Kelly – especially that he kept underage girls imprisoned in a dungeon – the title Trapped in the Closet and its disorienting narrative of sordid sexual revelations takes on more sinister implications.

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The wardrobe in David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet morphs from hiding place into something sinister: the location from which sexual abuse is witnessed. Image: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

The closet or wardrobe as a sinister place plays on the notion of the uncanny, the homely object endowed with malevolent intention. The proverbial closet belongs in this category, in which cosy domesticity functions as a stifling prison for homosexual desire. Similarly James Ensor’s creepy etching The Haunted Furniture shows a ghostly figure reaching out from a wardrobe, the stuff of childhood nightmares. Such horrors became reality for heiress Patty Hearst, who claimed to have been imprisoned in a closet for weeks by revolutionary group the Symbionese Liberation Army, who brainwashed her into joining their operations and robbing banks on their behalf. Their leader was mentally unwell, a man named Donald DeFreeze whose anti-capitalist fantasies retooled an object that had smuggled capitalist principles into the home as a generator of the forces of their destruction. He died in a police shootout in 1974.

A more banal political sentiment regarding the wardrobe has recently been voiced by a far less-dangerous individual: Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon. Nixon, currently in the running for New York State governor, told chat-show host Wendy Williams that she regarded a scene from the first Sex and the City film, in which Mr Big gives Carrie Bradshaw a walk-in closet of huge dimensions, as a betrayal of the show’s ideals. When Carrie reacts with unabashed joy to the acres of shelf-space Big has gifted to her, Nixon recalled, the cinema at which she was watching the premiere erupted with applause. ‘I was a little devastated by that because it seemed to me that the show was so much about female empowerment … So, to me, to have this be a kind of a climax of the film that your very wealthy husband built you a really nice closet for your clothes, I thought, “Wow, that’s not really what you love about this show, is it?” Because that’s not what we were making it for.’

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R kelly

R Kelly’s ‘hiphopera’, Trapped in the Closet, tells a story of desire and deceit

That the wardrobe’s expansionary return to the room should represent the fantasies of many should hardly come as a surprise, however. I have to admit that I too have occasionally weakened in this regard, especially while attempting to cram an ironed shirt back among the other items squeezed into my 500mm-wide PAX. But then R Kelly is not alone: we are all trapped in the closet, addicted to the senseless accumulation of garments produced by underpaid children and with nowhere to put them thanks to our own exploitation. There is no Narnia at the back of this wardrobe.

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This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today