Clothes hangers are a simple object that many of us interact with on a daily basis: They hold our sweaters, they become hopelessly tangled with one another as we put away clean laundry, and they create obnoxious ripples in the shoulders of our t-shirts. It's hard to think of a more banal household item, but even the hanger has its secrets. The item itself has changed hardly at all since its invention, but the way our culture relates to the hanger certainly has; in many ways, the humble clothing hanger illustrates the extents of our ambition, creative imagination, and ingenuity.
In The Beginning
Some historians have contended that the very first clothes-hanger-type-object should be credited to one of our founding fathers, in this case, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson supposedly created a "space-saving" device for a closet in his home in Monticello, which might have been a precursor to the hanger we know and use today. However, the general consensus is that the modern clothing hanger that we use today was first invented in 1860 by O.A. North, who fashioned a space-saving clothing hook (god bless him). The original hanger that North created consisted of a piece of wire that had two narrow ovals joined together in the middle with a twist, and a hook for the rack above it. Basically picture a standard wire hanger, but with two conjoined ovals where we'd now see a triangle shape.
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Because North's invention propagated around the same time end of the Industrial Revolution, some coat hangers carried advertisements aligning themselves with unions. A lovely article in The New York Times written in the early 90s profiled a man, Frank Maresca, who was so singularly fascinated with clothing hangers that he and a partner exhibited 170 of them in TriBeCa in 1991. Among the splendid array of clothes hangers—including some that resembled the human body and another shaped like a hypodermic needle—were union solidarity hangers, which had phrases like "Clothing For The People" printed on them.
Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention
Jumping ahead almost 100 years (it might not surprise anyone to learn that there wasn't always a lot of excitement surrounding hangers), we arrive to the 1970s, before Roe v. Wade had been passed. Though abortion was illegal until 1973, millions of illegal procedures still occurred before then. The most famous symbol of this fact, of course, is the coat hanger.
Discussing the "coat hanger abortion" makes many of cringe: The gruesome visceral response these illegal abortions invoke is uncomfortable, to say the least. Though many people think they're a myth, coat hanger abortions were indeed a very real procedure that many women in need of abortions were forced to pursue in the absence of safe, legal, and affordable reproductive care. In a 2003 essay for The New York Times, gynecologist Waldo Fielding wrote that, while working as an ob-gyn in New York pre-Roe v. Wade, he witnessed "several women [who had] arrived with a hanger still in place. Whoever put it in — perhaps the patient herself — found it trapped in the cervix and could not remove it."
Though many people think they're a myth, coat hanger abortions were indeed a very real procedure.
Coat hanger abortions are every bit as awful and dangerous as they sound. Various studies on this gruesome practice, including one published with the National Institute of Health in 2009, have described the method by which some women attempted to abort their pregnancies using coat hangers. According to such studies, the procedure consists of an attempt to remove a fetus from the womb by inserting a wire hanger into the vagina and through the cervix. Even now, the image of the coat hanger persists as a symbol of the dangerous lengths to which women will go, desperate for a means of terminating unwanted pregnancies in countries that enforce Orwellian bans on reproductive agency.
Even Hollywood picked up on the open association between hangers and abortions. Less than a decade after Roe v. Wade, it gave us Mommie Dearest—the ultimate image of a "crazy woman," containing the infamous line, "No wire hangers!"
In the 1981 film about Joan Crawford, the Crawford character (played by Faye Dunaway) is desperate to have a baby, but she instead has several pregnancies that end in miscarriage. Later, after she adopts several children, her obsessive-compulsive tendencies warp into abusive behavior. The infamous "wire hangers" line comes in a fit of rage directed at her adopted children; the chilling scene takes place after the children have gone to bed, and Crawford (who looks a ghost-like in the lighting of the scene) removes one of her daughter's frilly pink and white dresses held on a wire coat hanger from the closet and in a shaking voice screams:
No wire hangers! What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you, no wire hangers ever! I work and work till I'm half dead, and I hear people saying, "She's getting old," and what do I get? A daughter who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I give her as she cares about me! What's wire hangers doing in this closet? Answer me!
The children cower and hide under their pillows and blankets during Crawford's tirade as she throws all her daughter's clothing out of the closet to search for more wire hangers. Crawford's children are terrified of her, but are also familiar with this type of unbridled anger. They cry "Please, mommie!" as Crawford tears apart the closet.
The symbolism is unmistakable: A severely mentally ill woman who desperately wanted children ends up abusing her children and employing the hanger, the symbol of abortion, as a method to control her children through fear (and Crawford herself also had at least one illegal abortion in her younger years). Some pop culture analysts have interpreted this fixation on hangers to be a metaphor for the stigma surrounding abortion and the intense pressures of motherhood.
My Empire Of Plastic
On the complete opposite end of this spectrum, we have Joy Mangano, a Home Shopping Network star, who invented the Huggable Hanger: an ultra-thin and soft-curving hanger that has been an immensely successful product (not made of metal). Her hangers are the all time best-selling product on HSN, with sales totaling over 300 million units. Mangano is also the inventor of the Miracle Mop (the self-wringing mop! You don't have to hurt your back when you mop anymore!), and her rags-to-riches storywill soon be depicted on the big screen, starring none other than Jennifer Lawrence as Mangano and Bradley Cooper as an HSN executive. All because of an ingenious and alliterative closet organizing device.
Repurposing The Tool
The hanger has been reimagined so many times in so many ways, that the current meaning of "the hanger" seems to include the idea of reinvention and possibility. That is to say: the hanger is a thing to be infinitely repurposed. In some ways a hanger is the ultimate tool—you can bend wire hangers to reach objects that get stuck under the couch, and, back in the day, wire hangers were used to aid television antennas. Nowadays it's a popular hack to bend wire hangers so that they hold up a book, Kindle, or iPad.
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And it isn't all about utility when it comes to using hangers. A quick search on Pinterest reveals the hanger to be a DIYers dream object. From cutesy wedding decorations to minimalist art displays for your walls, the hanger is a lusty crafting apparatus.
Since its invention, the clothes hanger, an ostensibly plain and ordinary organizing device, has become a well loved—albeit much overlooked—piece of American culture onto which we've projected an entire history. Truly what could be more American than decades-long political struggles, Capitalist success stories, and the all-pervasive theme of rebirth and reinvention? It's a weird twist, but the hanger just might be one of our most simple and revelatory pieces of material culture.