A Closet of One’s Own
— and what to do with it
One museum exhibit that’s forever imprinted in my mind is “Sara Berman’s Closet” at The Met. My mom told me I had to see it immediately, and I took a bus to and from New York in a day to do it.
Experience it virtually here.
Here’s what the LA Times said in its review, and I love it: “Born in Belarus in 1920, Berman lived a fairly idyllic life with her large family, including her favorite sister, Shoshana. The children frolicked in forests of wild blueberries, ate cake, and sang and danced to their hearts’ delight.
When Berman was 12, her family moved to Palestine, where she grew into a ravishing young woman. Despite what the Kalmans describe in the book as ‘terrible misgivings,’ she married, moved to New York and had two daughters, including Maira.
It was not a happy marriage, and when the daughters grew up, the couple returned to Tel Aviv. Then, at age 60, Berman took a single suitcase and left her husband. She returned to New York City and found a small studio apartment in Greenwich Village. This, Maira said, was Berman’s liberation.
She thrived as a single woman in the city. She developed habits and joys all her own. She loved Fred Astaire, devoured autobiographies, regularly visited the Museum of Modern Art, ate herring and watched ‘Jeopardy’ every night.
At some point, in what the book calls a ‘burst of personal expression,’ Berman decided to wear only white. The clothes she kept from then on are the ones that can be found in the installation bearing her name.”
If Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own tells us that a woman must must have money and a room of her own to express herself creatively, in this New York version, a person only needs a closet and a deepening sense of who they are.
I cried when I saw this exhibit. These small items, so lovingly collected and carefully chosen, folded with such care — bringing to each day a sense of honoring oneself and one’s life. A self-tenderness that was hard fought and exuberantly enjoyed.
And I thought of this exhibit again today. An instagram friend wrote to me. I’ll let her explain.
Reading this hit me with a wallop of something. It’s not just a closet. As with Sara Berman, she’s ushering in a new era of freedom. This closet is an urgent matter!
I get it. My own closet (here’s a tour if you want to see how mine’s organized) is treasured, important and symbolic to me too. It’s a room where I find peace and comfort and inspiration. Where I work and host friends. After trading in an early career as a lawyer to do things that brought me joy, I also traded the financial security I’d so carefully and pointedly set myself up for. I had to fight for it. And I too got divorced. I was a single mom. I worked multiple jobs. I climbed back up. Finally I’m working for myself and supporting myself doing something I love. Looking at my closet, my space, exactly as I want it to be, greeting me each morning and before I sleep, feels like honoring that I got myself there after all.
And now back to you, my friend. Congratulations on this proud new era. And here’s your closet primer.
- Make your closet something really pleasing to your eye. Think about Sara Berman. Whatever that means for you. I love the wallpaper Barbara Vail chose for me. I love fresh flowers in small vases. Good candles will smell amazing even when unlit. My favorites are Campfire and Loewe. Diptyque scented ovals can go on a doorknob, handle or in a drawer. Add plants, a rug, art, fashion books or poetry; whatever speaks to you personally belongs in there.
- The name of the game is “like with like.” All belts together. All cotton sweaters together. All hair accessories together. Etc.
- Use only one kind of hanger. It soothes the eye. Go with a thin flocked velvet hanger. It allows you to store more and things don’t fall off.
- No knits on hangers. It stretches them. If you have to, fold the knit and drape it over the hanger bar.
- Limit the number of events-only items you own. But if you have any (like I have a tuxedo jumpsuit with satin lapels), put them in the farthest away area. Also, put out-of-season clothes in the same area. If you find they distract you, put them in a fabric garment bag there.
- Hang by category not outfit. If you hang by outfit, you’ll keep wearing those things together versus experimenting, creating random serendipitous pairings.
- Within each category, hang by color, dark to light (black, gray, brown, purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, pink, like a rainbow).
- Within each color, hang by weight (thickest to thinnest).
- When you’re folding items in drawers, use the KonMari method. Or some realistic approximation. The point is you need to stack like books in a shoe box with the spines up. And then color grade in the drawer the way you did with your hanging items. Otherwise you’ll never see the bottom layer!
- Make adjustments as you live with it. I learned I couldn’t have all my necklaces in drawers because I forgot about them. So we did a necklace wall. I pulled sports bras out of the bra drawers and made a workout section. I took a pair of cropped black leggings out of the workout items and put them with the shorts because I like wearing them with a blazer and kitten heel. Things like that. It should get easier and more delightful for you all the time.
- Display bags you love as if merchandising a boutique. Let there be space so they can breathe. Do it in a way that’s pleasing to you.
- Make a shoe rainbow. And within each color, put like with like. Go from high heel to low.
- Use slotted storage as often as possible. It really makes keeping organized easier. Rolled belts, socks, undies, bras stay separated.
- If you have room, have a valet rack. Use it to pack, to plan outfits. Hang things that need to get tailored or that you’re trying to wear before you decide if they should stay or go.
- Keep the hamper in the bathroom. Behind the door usually works. You don’t want sweaty workout clothes in the same space as all your clean clothes and candles.
- Designate a probation shelf. This is where you put items you aren’t sure about.
- Also, designate a donation/consignment area. If you wear something and don’t feel good in it, peel it off and get rid of it or put it on probation if you don’t feel you can.
- Keep a stain removal kit close. You’ll want blue painter’s tape to mark stains for the cleaner. A bleach stick for white Ts. Tide sticks. And Carbona solutions, which address different causes for stains. Also, Soak wash for hand washing. And Laundress or Downy wrinkle remover. And a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser for shoes.
- Make tidying fun. You can’t always have your closet as tidy as Sara Berman’s. There are those days when you’re running late and leave stuff all over. When it’s time to clean, make it a pleasure. Light a candle, listen to a podcast, have some champs or a mocktail.
- Feel it! Feel the joy. Soak it all in. Don’t forget that part. If it helps, repeat a mantra when entering or leaving. I’ve come so far and I’m grateful I’m here.
Also, I refer you to Tibi’s style class, the recent closet edition. And of course, the epic closet wisdom of Trinny Woodall. Watching these only adds to the joy.
Dear Sara (it’s not your name, but I’ll call you that here), soak up every day, every delight, every treasure, every sun ray, every shadow, every quiet moment, every dance beat, every icy fresh discovery, every cozy cashmere cocoon. I am so very happy for you.