Mind The Gap! Retail Stints Train Americans To Fold Obsessively

Today's Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the obsessive folding habits of legions of Americans trained in symmetry by The Gap and its clothing compatriots. "The ranks of obsessive folders have swelled as a generation of Americans has done stints as clothing-store clerks," writes Jennifer Saranow. "Now, after countless hours spent neatly folding and stacking, their peculiar idea of perfection is straining marriages and leading to bizarre behavior." What follows is a slew of stories of people who, like military lifers, have had folding practices so drilled into them that they are unable to adapt to civilian life: "'It's been programmed into me," says Marcos Chin, a 33-year-old freelance illustrator in New York, who folds his jeans the same way he did in the 1990s when he gave folding seminars for clerks at Gap.'" Maybe I'm just not naturally compulsive. Maybe it's my latent rebellion. But, speaking as a retail professional, I've never felt the slightest desire to bring this particular facet of my work home with me.

After all, what distinguishes a job from a career is the ability to leave it behind you when you get on the subway. What's more, I've always relished the strict line that divides my chaotic reality from the the hyper-organized universe of the store. At home, I subscribe to the "floor-drobe" school of organization. Garments comingle in squalid anarchy on the floor, chairs, bureau and closet. Underpants dance in jubilant heaps in drawers; bras prance from the edge of the mirror. When I do manage to impose some order - on laundry day, perhaps - my piles are flaccid and asymmetrical, colors and styles impudently tangled. I once had a therapist suggest that the chaos of my personal surroundings are a response to the tight control I exert over my relationships. Personally, I prefer to believe I had a large staff in a past life.

Don't get me wrong: I can fold with the best of them - and without a folding board, mind you. Outer thirds of a tee rigidly marshaled, sleeves turned in at a 45 degree angle, and then the final letter-style flip. [Will you come over to my place sometime soon? I'll pay for the pizza! -Ed.] I can do this in a single fluid motion, 'dropping' the tee into a perfectly symmetrical rectangle. If called upon, I can do the 'Japanese folding technique,' a kamikaze-like flick of the wrist that actually doesn't save time, but looks awesome. And my piles! Ruler-straight, color-coordinated wonders. Jeans? Even thirds, facing left. Anything on a hanger is leftwards, too, in ascending size order, carefully marshaled into sections organized by color and use. I love the novelty of this organization, the imposition of order on chaos - but largely because I don't do it at home.

There have been moments when I've looked at my heap of clean laundry, mounded in its old-lady cart, and resolved to do it right this time. But from the first fold of my faded tees, I know it's a futile effort. Ownership to me means comfort. In my drawers, my clothes have no one to impress, no need to sell themselves. They have earned their rest. To subject them to such contortions would only serve to emphasize how old and tired they are. The rigidity of a store is artificial - especially a soulless behemoth like the Gap - and while I appreciate organization, it seems to me curious to swallow a corporate conception of perfection so fully that anything less seems lacking. It strikes me as a generally positive thing that a higher percentage of Americans are doing time in retail - if nothing else, it teaches you to always leave a dressing-room neat. But the homogeneity of the corporate retail ethos obviously plays to obsessive tendencies in the overly-neurotic. One can't help but wonder if McDonald's employees bring this kind of zeal to their home life, or whether Bloomingdales employees enthusiastically spritz their families with clouds of perfume. It would, in its way, be no less absurd. But whatever the larger implications, one thing is clear: "Fall into the Gap" is less an enticement than a threat!

Excuse Me, Do You Work Here? No, I Just Need To Fold Clothes [WSJ]