Closet Case

Women have many methods of trying to reconcile their love of clothes with their more intellectual passions. Emily Neill started

Women have many methods of trying to reconcile their love of clothes with their more intellectual passions. Emily Neill started her own company. Neill says her entrepreneurial “Closet Smarts” service is her way of “trying to square my feminism with my more material self.”

Neill is also a Divinity School student working on a doctoral dissertation about feminist theories and the body, in light of new reproductive technologies. She arrives at FM’s designated meeting place looking decidedly un-Divinity School in cranberry lipstick, a coordinating plum top and skirt and flats. She may look cute, but inside she is all business. Her mission—organize the closets of Harvard students.

Angie J. Thebaud ’04-’05

Thebaud arrives to meet us in a casual chic outfit of jeans and a black peasant top layered over a collared shirt. As we walk to her room in Winthrop, Neill begins the analysis. “Are you a clotheshorse?” she asks. Without a trace of hesitation, Thebaud replies in the positive, then backpedals, “Most of what I have, I wear.”

The heel of her Prada pointed-toe red stiletto catches on the pavement for a moment and she gripes, “Cobblestones gobble up your heels.”

Thebaud leads us into a stately common room decorated with modern art. The bedroom is spare, with a quote from Coco Chanel on the wall—“La mode, c’est ce qui se démodé.”

The tour begins. “This is my main closet, and this closet is for our extra shoes.” There is also a third closet, which holds Thebaud and roommate Brittany J. Garza ’04’s coats, “nice dresses” and array of Vuitton luggage. Thebaud, it turns out, is also a strong supporter of a coat wardrobe. Neill says approvingly,  “I’m happy to see that you’re coat people.” Thebaud agrees, “Coats are important. Especially in the winter, because that’s all you see of people.”

After a cursory examination of the closets, Dr. Neill has her diagnosis. “You don’t need much help. You have everything in the right place. You have put bulky sweaters on the top shelf.” She looks through Closet #1, a neat collection of sweaters, shoes and skirts, with a telltale Jasmine bag hanging on one side. Some black Puma sneakers and a pair of boots are scattered on the closet floor. “One suggestion I would make is to carry over shoe organization from one closet to another.” Neill says gently. She also suggests an over-the-door rack for purses. Thebaud responds, “Cool. Good idea.” Otherwise, Neill notes that it is neat, and Thebaud says, “I start off the week with my closet looking like this.”

Neill holds up a gold shawl top: “I have this too!” “That was like a random Filene’s Basement find,” Thebaud says. “Me too!” Neill laughs. “Yeah, you don’t need my help.”

Neill moves to Thebaud’s dresser and begins going through the drawers. “Is this stuff for the gym?” she asks. “Yeah, but I never go to the gym. They’re gathering dust.”

“I would recommend…”

“Going to the gym?”

“…getting rid of stuff if you’re just holding onto.”

Neill also advocates getting rid of wire hangers. They leave marks and “they have that sticky stuff, you know, that gets on your jeans.” As she begins throwing them onto the closet floor, Thebaud asks nervously, “Are you throwing the hangers away?” Neill replies, “Let’s just say I’m encouraging you to explore the world of plastic hangers.”

A Florida native, Thebaud has more than her share of summery wardrobe items. “Are you still going to wear these into fall?” Neill asks disapprovingly as she holds up a pair of khakis. Deep into closet rehab, Thebaud admits, “I know that’s a total faux pas but I still like them.”

Thebaud’s 21st birthday is coming up, and she and Garza are heading to N.Y. for the weekend to celebrate. Neill grabs a fuzzy, black sweater from Express. “I’m actually wearing that tonight,” Thebaud says, snapping it up. Neill jokes, “When you’re 21, you can turn over a new leaf—called plastic hangers.”

V. Elizabeth Encisco ’06  Feilin A. Zhu ’06

“Oh my God, you share this room?” Neill asks as she walks into the girls’ Quincy bedroom. Between the two of them, Zhu and Encisco have amassed a fair amount of clothing. It is Neill’s job to figure out how to condense their collection so that they can finally pry open the door to their crowded closet.

“Basically you want to pare down what you have to essentials?” Neill asks, rolling up her sleeves with an almost military determination. The girls agree that their goal is to maximize space. Neill starts by moving out the drawers and laundry hamper. She notes that Zhu and Encisco have already developed good strategies for dealing with storage—they hang their purses on the wall to save space (Neill notes that they can also do this with scarves and accessories). In fact, Zhu and Encisco “don’t have that much stuff, it’s just a question of how to organize it better. You guys haven’t gotten to the terrible hoarding stage, yet.”

Neill suggests hanging tops in the closet—jeans and pants are easier to fold and more recognizable, thus they can go in the drawers. They also get rid of the boxes on the closet’s top shelf and replace them with folded sweaters.

Now Neill issues a challenge to the girls: “Go through what you have, and get rid of stuff that you’ve been holding on to or that is old hat. Are you prepared?”

As the girls sit nervously on the bed, Neill begins going through items one by one. She pronounces Encisco’s black skirt “classic” but suggests that she store two summer dresses, khaki pants and a khaki skirt. Neill holds up two pairs of black pants and asks if there is a difference between them. Encisco ventures that the pair on the right are “nicer.” Neill smiles knowingly and returns them to the closet.

Now Zhu’s clothing gets examined. Neill decides that her white shirts are no longer in season. It’s wise, says Neill, to “keep a seasonal rotation going.” The shirt is promptly stored away in a suitcase under Zhu’s bed.

Jeans and T-shirts, Neill says, are two things people have too much of. Zhu and Encisco are no exception. “I already see inclinations toward massive jeans collections.” Holding up five pairs of identical denim, Neill tells Encisco, “You could stand to try on these jeans and figure out which ones push you over the jeans limit.”

The closet has been cleared of all but the essentials. “Now look at all the space you have. Now we can go into the drawers!” exults Neill. She tells them to pull out non-seasonal tops, leaving only clothes that work for fall and winter. “Eliminate for me things that are too summery or that you haven’t worn in a long time.”

As the girls fold diligently, Neill consoles them with her own tales of clothing addiction. As an undergrad at Oberlin College, “The number one thing I brought with me to school was clothes. I forced my parents to drag them back and forth.”  

As Encisco replaces her clothes in the drawers, Neill gives out some professional tips. “I generally recommend that you sort your drawers by short-sleeve, long-sleeve and bottoms.” The girls should put their “hangout” clothes—sweatpants and hoodies—in a collapsible cube that is easily accessible. This makes them easier to just “throw on.” Neill says it simplifies things to keep them “separate from ‘outfit’ clothing.”

At the end of their session, Neill makes a few final recommendations. The pair should use the hooks on the bathroom door to hold clothes (the store Hold Everything also carries over-the-door racks). They should invest in color-coded hangers for each girl. “Visually and for organization, it helps to have all your hangers in the same color.” Since they are storing a lot of outerwear like hats and scarves in drawers, they should invest in a basket by the door for “accoutrements.” Finally, they should store unseasonable clothes under the beds.  

As we trek to the next appointment, Neill says that almost all of her clients have space issues. “They always have way too much stuff. They have their “skinny” set of clothes and their heavier set of clothes.” Also, they are struggling with Cambridge housing and its “tiny, shallow closets.”

Clients can develop an abnormal relationship with clothes. Neill remembers her first encounter with clothing separation anxiety: “By the third thing I made her throw out she said, ‘I need a drink.’”

Neill has creative ideas for recycling as well: she encourages her clients to unload surplus clothing at consignment stores and to organize clothing swaps with her friends. They have dinner at someone’s house and bring clothes they are sick of.  It’s a way to get rid of clothing “without having the remorse of throwing it out.”

After forays into the closets of dozens of Boston-area women, Neill has noticed that “the things people obsess over are things like coats and shoes.” She notes that she falls into the former category. “I’m just a strong supporter of a coat wardrobe.”

Understandably, Neill is very organized. She admits, “I’m the type of person who, my mom would do my laundry and put it in the drawers, and I would have to take it out and refold it.” It is inevitable that she would become a closet organizer.