When I was a kid, my mother loved to take me out for some light trespassing. This was the 1990s, during which the Atlanta metropolitan area’s population grew nearly 40 percent, and housing construction boomed to match. McMansions were sprouting up on seemingly every tract of available land in my family’s once-modest suburb, and my mom—I say this affectionately— is the nosiest person alive. Often, in the middle of running errands, she’d whip her station wagon into some new development, surveil the scene until she found a house that looked finished enough, and see if the front door was unlocked. Or maybe the side door.
Even when I was in elementary school, her behavior struck me as wild. Mom insisted that the builders left the doors open so people would come in, look around, and buy the houses. I’m still not sure what to make of this logic; it’s difficult to measure your own family’s weird behavior against what happens unseen in other families.
What I did see, though, were the interiors of the houses other families would inhabit. In spite of my worries about going to child jail for crimes against McMansions (as a white kid in a mostly white suburb, I had a limited sense of the more dire consequences we might have faced if we hadn’t blended in quite so well), I understood instinctively why my mother loved traipsing through them. It was anticipatory voyeurism, an opportunity to gaze upon the granite countertops and built-in bookshelves that would soon greet the upper-middle-class families streaming into Atlanta from the Northeast and Midwest. It was also aspirational; maybe someday we’d replace our laminate counters, which I could already tell were not as fancy as the gleaming, speckled slabs of stone we admired.
Mom’s favorite parts of these houses were the kitchens and bathrooms, which are traditionally the spaces that builders rely on to endear buyers to a property. I, on the other hand, loved the closets. Our house, built in the early ’80s, had the then-basic suburban version— two bifold doors obscuring a rod for hangers and a shelf above it. In the newer homes, though, the walk-in reigned supreme. The concept blew my mind: One day, when I grew up, I might have so many pretty clothes that they’d need their own tiny room.
At first, my fascination felt like mine alone, but I soon saw it reflected in the pop culture I had begun voraciously consuming. The enormous closets of Candy Spelling, the wife of the Beverly Hills, 90210 producer Aaron Spelling, were a tabloid mainstay for much of the ’90s. In the 1995 movie Clueless, the fashion-obsessed main character uses a computer program to dig through her wardrobe; a motorized system then brings forth her selections. The 2000s gave us MTV Cribs, which took viewers inside sprawling celebrity homes, and made Mariah Carey’s department-store-scale dressing quarters the stuff of legend. And in 2008, when Carrie Bradshaw agreed to marry Mr. Big in the Sex and the City movie, she refused an engagement ring—instead, she wanted “a really big closet.”
Since then, with the help of ever-cheaper clothes, more and more Americans have sought to follow Carrie’s lead. The closet has transformed both spatially and spiritually, from cramped afterthought to personal sanctuary. At the very high end, closets can span multiple rooms and comprise a near-limitless set of amenities— vanities, desks, wet bars. They can even bear an uncanny resemblance to boutiques. As shopping continues to shift online, the ultimate luxury might be building a store of your own.
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