22

I believe that speakers on both sides of the pond (i.e. the Atlantic Ocean) are familiar with the terms closet and wardrobe. The first is distinctly American, and the latter is used in the UK. Oxford Dictionaries offer the following tidbits

closet
North American
1. A tall cupboard or wardrobe with a door, used for storage.
he has a closet full of designer suits

Origin
Late Middle English (denoting a private or small room): from Old French, diminutive of clos ‘closed’

and

wardrobe
1. A large, tall cupboard or recess in which clothes may be hung or stored.
All of the bedrooms have fitted wardrobes and wash hand basins while one rear bedroom also has an en-suite shower room.

Origin
Middle English (in the sense ‘private chamber’): from Old Northern French warderobe, variant of Old French garderobe

I do not live in the US nor in the UK but I would like to know whether Americans ever use the word "wardrobe", in the sense of furniture, instead of closet.

Similarly, if both terms are derived from Middle English, and both are French loanwords why did "closet" catch on in the States but not in the UK? For example, was the term "closet" more commonly used in England at the time when the Pilgrims left Plymouth and boarded the Mayflower in 1620? Has the meaning or its usage changed in the last fifty years, etc.?

Clarification note

I am not interested so much in the different meanings and idiomatic usages of closet and wardrobe, but as to why one term for a piece of bedroom furniture was preferred to the other.

  • 29
    If you're not interested in the different meanings, how will you know which word to use? In my (eastern US, NY to FL) experience, wardrobe is usually meant for free-standing furniture and closet for a built-in room. Don't just rely on dictionary definitions - do image searches. ;) – Davo Dec 14 '17 at 13:04
  • 2
    Answers to 'why' questions are difficult. Are you looking for a linguistic or cultural answer? Maybe house builders in the US more often build built-in wardrobes/closets than the UK (and this would fit US usage at least where the built-in is called a closet and the stand-alone is called a wardrobe (and stand-alones are rare in the US). – Mitch Dec 14 '17 at 14:25
  • 3
    Is there a reason why you're asking about the Pilgrims? The permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia predated any landing & settlement by the Pilgrims. – AmE speaker Dec 14 '17 at 16:38
  • 12
    The question suffers from asking why. See meta. Also who says 'closet' is more popular in the US than 'wardrobe'? In the US they refer to two different things. When they are used to refer to the correct object, one is not more popular than the other. – AmE speaker Dec 14 '17 at 16:42
  • 6
    Are you saying that English speakers in the UK call small rooms for storage wardrobes instead of closets? Or perhaps closets just aren't very common in the UK? Otherwise, I don't understand the question. No American would ever call a piece of furniture a closet. Closets and wardrobes are two entirely different things. – ell Dec 14 '17 at 17:28
10
+100

TL;DR: The term "closet" shows up much more in American writing and speech because closets (the architectural feature) are much more common than wardrobes (the piece of furniture) in American homes, and have been for a century or more.

I agree with GEdgar's answer that in the US, a closet is an architectural feature—essentially a small room (possibly very small)—whereas a wardrobe is a piece of furniture (or possibly the collection of clothes that can be held in either).1 In my experience, the terms are not generally used interchangeably for either the built-in home feature or the casegood, though I can imagine that in a pinch someone who couldn't bring to mind the appropriate word for a piece of furniture might call it a "closet thing" or similar.

Both terms are also in extended use: For example, a large packing box fitted with a bar for hanging clothes is typically called a wardrobe box (see, e.g., U-Haul); there are many different types of closet (linen closets2, supply closets3, coat closets4, etc.); and when something doesn't quite fit either category advertisers may employ both terms at once, as in the Honey-Can-Do® 68-Inch Steel Freestanding Wardrobe Closet (from retailer Bed Bath & Beyond), a wire shelving unit whose blurb reads:

Update the inside of your closet or create extra storage space with the Honey-Can-Do freestanding wardrobe closet. This portable system keeps clothes, shoes and other items organized.

Thus the word closet is not really preferred over wardrobe in the US in the sense of having replaced it as the "correct" term—both terms are still in common use by most adult AmE speakers, just for two different concepts. However, the word "closet" is, indeed, far more common in American speech and writing. For example, a Google Ngram comparing "closet" and "wardrobe" (case insensitive; typical Ngram caveats apply) shows that as of 2000, the term "closet" was almost three times as common as "wardrobe" in Ngram's American English corpus. In fact, "closet" has been more common than "wardrobe" in American English writing for over two centuries. The usage of "wardrobe" held fairly steady from 1800–2000, whereas "closet" gradually declined to the mid-1960s and then began a fairly steep rise.

![Google Ngram showing case-insensitive comparison of terms "closet" and "wardrobe" from 1800 to 2000 in American English. "Closet" is consistently more common than "wardrobe"; the "closet" curves shows a very jagged, very slight decline from around 0.00075% in the early 1800s to a low of just below 0.0004% in the mid-1960s, before beginning a steep and steady rise to a high of about 0.00085% in 2000. "Wardrobe" begins at just under 0.0002% in 1880, climbs up to a high of just over 0.0003% in the mid-1850s, then hovers drifts up and down between 0.0002% and 0.0003% for the rest of the chart.

The reason for this disparity has to do with architectural history: in the US, built-in clothing storage, AKA closets, are virtually ubiquitous, and have been for a very long time. This means that there is less need for furniture in which to hang clothes. So we talk about closets more than about wardrobes, because we have more closets than we do wardrobes.

The New York Times reports in their timeline "A Few Niches in Closet History" that an early-adopter of closets in that city was a luxury apartment building constructed in 1880. A real estate expert quoted in the associated article5 notes that today,

In general, regular closets are 3 by 5 feet, while walk-in closets are 5 by 8 feet . . . .

But the timeline also highlights a couple of "closets" that look more like entire rooms or even boutiques, the new aspirational closet (full disclosure: I converted a small second kitchen in my 1900 farmhouse into a "sleep-in" closet, complete with its own closet, though the contents are nothing like as luxe as Carey's/Carrie's).

In parts of the US where space is at less of a premium, closets have been common for even longer. A couple of articles on the history of Iowa home architecture6 show small closets in homes built as early as the mid-1800s, and common for houses built by the end of that century. And modern homes in the US are expected to have a closet in every bedroom (even if that's not usually a legal requirement).

In this architectural context, wardrobes (the clothing storage furniture item) are used largely by folks with what most Americans would consider sub-standard closet space. One article, which recommends various wardrobe options7, opens:

So you've found the perfect apartment, with great light, in a great neighborhood, only — it doesn't have any closets. You could throw away all of your clothes, or, if wearing the same outfit for the rest of your life sounds like too much of a sacrifice, you could check out some of these ideas . . . .

Note the dramatic pause (punctuationally speaking) introducing the desperate lack of closets.

In fact, there is so little call for separate furniture for hanging clothing that there is a small cottage industry dedicated to repurposing such furniture. As DIY columnist Elise Moreau puts it in her Decoist article "15 Creative Ways to Repurpose an Old Antique Armoire",

An antique armoire can bring a sense of timeless elegance to any home, but not everyone can find a proper use for one — not to mention sufficient space too! In the old days they were used to store clothing and linens back when bedrooms didn’t have closets, and today some people use them to hold their televisions — but that trend perhaps isn’t as big of a deal as it once was now that TV screens are so flat and compact. In any case, if you do have the room for it, i[t] certainly isn’t impossible to find some kind of use for an armoire.


1 The piece of furniture is also sometimes called an armoire, and if it is combined with a chest of drawers it may be called a chiffarobe. I'm sure there are other terms in regional use, too—possibly even closet. I note that even Merriam-Webster lists "a cabinet or recess" as a possible meaning of closet, so it's likely that someone in the US says this or did at one time, but it is far from common now.
2 (M-W; traditionally literally for towels and bed linens, but now likely to also house other bed & bath necessities)
3 The Free Dictionary; just what it sounds like, but usually found at places of business rather than in homes
4 TFD; found generally near the entrance(s) of a home
5 "Closets, Please, and the Bigger the Better", by Elissa Gootman, April 5, 2013
6 See "A Historical Look at Architecture in Iowa." The Annals of Iowa 38 (1967), 481-500 and Peterson, Fred W. "Tradition and Change in Nineteenth-Century Iowa Farmhouses." The Annals of Iowa 52 (1993), 251-281
7 Nancy Mitchell, “Ideas & Inspiration: Storing Clothes in Apartments with No Closets”, Apartment Therapy, Dec. 29, 2015

85

I agree with Hot Licks. I am in the US. A wardrobe is a movable piece of furniture

wardrobe

but a closet is built in to the house.

closet
A closet may have doors, unlike this one.

As a child, when I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I imagined something like the first picture. I wonder if kids in England imagine something like the second picture?

  • 32
    No; UK usage of "wardrobe" appears to be the same as US. I'd guess that one reason that the word "closet" (in this context) isn't as common in the UK is that homes here tend not to have closets, possibly because UK homes are, on average, smaller than in the US. – Steve Melnikoff Dec 14 '17 at 15:04
  • 18
    Another distinction is that a 'closet' in the US isn't always designed or used to hold clothes e.g. a "utility closet". – JimmyJames Dec 14 '17 at 15:17
  • 25
    @SteveMelnikoff: In the UK when a home does have what in the US would be called a closet, it's more usually referred to as a "walk-in wardrobe", or possibly "fitted wardrobe" (although that would more often be more like a cupboard built into the room). – psmears Dec 14 '17 at 15:19
  • 7
    I (BrE) would call picture 2 a built-in wardrobe, and, yes, C.S.Lewis's wardrobe would have been like picture 1. See paulinebaynes.com/?what=artifacts&image_id=575 – Kate Bunting Dec 14 '17 at 16:05
  • 11
    @psmears We use the term "walk-in closets" in the US for closets that are substantially deeper and usually larger than the image shown (sometimes much larger—essentially an entire room). Walk-ins are much-prized in US real estate, but very large closets aren't really the norm, except in very affluent areas. – 1006a Dec 14 '17 at 19:20

protected by Mari-Lou A Dec 15 '17 at 19:20

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.