A 17th century chest, a sleek mid-fifties modernist cabinet and a crazy shelving unit designed in 1999.
Displayed together at Designmuseum Danmark, as part of a temporary exhibition on the environmental impacts of today’s fashion industry, the three pieces tell the story of the “evolution of the private wardrobe,” says curator Anders Eske Laurberg Hansen. “They all have the same function. But they show how careless we have become.”
The amount of clothing that all three examples can hold is about the same. Hansen’s premise is that our addiction to fast fashion – “cheaper and cheaper, yes, but worse and worse quality” – has changed the look and shape of our closets – and our perception of the value of the clothes they contain.
The 17th-century chest is barely bigger than a picnic basket. It is made of oak and bound in a decorative iron box with its own lock and key. The heavy arsenal reflects a period when clothes were expected to last a lifetime. “All the textiles in a house would fit in there,” says Hansen. “They were so expensive you had to be careful.” The coffin, he says, would have been a typical piece in a middle-class German home.
The 1950s version of the cabinet is by Danish architects Grethe Meyer and Børge Mogensen, part of their streamlined Boligens Byggeskabe storage system. It comes closest to a conventional freestanding wardrobe, but prescriptively modernist. Meyer and Mogensen set out to find the exact minimum number of clothes a person would need and then designed a wardrobe that was specially measured to contain it. Their closet would probably fit three suits and a handful of shirts.
The point was democratization – easily accessible modern consumer goods through standardized mass production of clothing. But in the 1950s, clothing was still expensive, still valuable and meant to last. Owning as little as possible was a rational move.
What Meyer and Mogensen hadn’t foreseen was globalization, fast supply chains, and prices so cheap that clothing became practically disposable. Fast forward to the casual shelving designed by Copenhagen-based Louise Campbell in the late 1990s – at the dawn of the era of fast fashion.
Campbell’s closet is a tall cigar-shaped maple frame designed to lean against a wall like a lazy schoolboy, with curved open shelves, which seem to encourage random stuffing and discourage neat folding. They look useful for quick lives and quick clothes retrieval; is not conducive to the care and protection of its contents.
Even Campbell’s shelves no longer reflect modern customs. In the decade that followed, our appetite for fast fashion took overdrive.
Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and according to McKinsey, the average person bought 60 percent more clothing by the end of that period. That at least partly explains the modern penchant for walk-ins and dressing rooms that take up much more architectural space in our homes – we need a place to put everything.
Today, an average of 70 percent of the garments hanging in our wardrobes are “passive”, says Else Skjold, an associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Architecture, Design and Conservation, who has studied the habits of clothing accumulation and co-curated the exhibition.
Skjold has been observing people going through the clothes in their wardrobes since 2010 and interviewing them along the way. What she discovered is that the value we place on clothing today has completely changed. Now, it “lies in the fact that [clothes] are in vogue,” she says.
However, the appearance and shape of our wardrobes may be on the verge of shrinking, perhaps even returning to the dimensions of Hansen’s three examples, as we are forced to reconsider the value of clothes.
The fast fashion business model appears to be becoming increasingly unsustainable as retailers are hit by rising costs of raw materials, labor and freight, and consumer disposable incomes are declining due to rising inflation.
European regulators are also pushing for an end to cheap, mass-produced clothing, with proposals to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact. The proposals are at an early stage but could lead to regulations governing everything from how long a garment should last to how much recycled yarn it contains.
For the Copenhagen exhibition, Hansen has rammed the environmental point by hanging a selection of nearly identical mid-blue men’s work shirts around his three wardrobes. He found them in thrift stores.
“I wanted it to feel like there was a human around,” he says. “I used these blue shirts because I found them everywhere, thrown away.”
They look pristine. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with them,” he says. “But when I step into a thrift store, I see rows and rows of perfectly similar, fine blue shirts. We don’t notice them anymore.”
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