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How Uncovered Windows Became a Status Symbol

How Uncovered Windows Became a Status Symbol
How Uncovered Windows Became a Status Symbol

Walk down the block of a wealthy neighborhood at night, and you might be surprised by how much you can see. One uncovered window might reveal the glow of a flatscreen TV across from a curved couch; through another, you might glimpse a marble kitchen island and a chandelier. Of course, some of the curtains are closed—but many are flung open, the home’s interiors exposed, like you’re peering into a showroom.

Uncovered windows have quietly become a fixture of high-end homes across America. The New York Times recently referred to the “obligatory uncurtained windows” of Brooklyn Heights, a rich enclave in New York City, and The Root pointed out that this seemed common among wealthy young white people living in gentrified urban areas. On TikTok, onlookers have been baffled by the trend—and, sometimes, tempted to pry. Although this phenomenon is most visible in cities, the link between wealth and exposed windows extends across the United States. Most people do still close their shades, but Americans who earn more than $150,000 are almost twice as likely to leave windows uncovered as those making $20,000 to $29,000, according to a large 2013 study for the U.S. Department of Energy—nearly 20 percent of the first group compared with just over 10 percent of the second. The line isn’t smooth as you slide up and down the income scale, but the overall trend is clear: The choice to draw or not draw the curtains is in part driven by class.

Ditching shades has a lot of upsides regardless of who you are. Uncovered windows bring in natural light, boost well-being, and offer a view of the world outside. The trade-off, of course, is that they also put those inside on display to passersby, and in the summer, they channel heat. For many, the concerns about privacy and finances outweigh the aesthetic and mental health benefits. But for those in the highest income brackets, the calculus is different: People with a big home can more easily get natural light and privacy, and they don’t need to worry so much about heating and cooling costs. Slowly, uncovered windows have become a status symbol.

Forgoing curtains wasn’t always so appealing. When transparent glass windows emerged in late-18th-century Europe, they sparked fears about prying neighbors and an overabundance of light. Oscar Wilde complained in 1884 that “most modern windows are much too large and glaring.” Curtains were a natural solution, Daniel Jütte, a professor at NYU who discusses the history of windows in his book Transparency: The Material History of an Idea, told me. As the 19th-century German architect Richard Lucae argued, they helped create a sense of “seclusion from the exterior world.” Houses without curtains came to be seen as “the epitome of poverty,” as one 1880s German manual put it. (Aristocrats were perhaps the exception to this, because they lived in houses so large that they could retreat to internal rooms if they didn’t want to be seen; privacy was less of a concern for them.)

In the middle of the 20th century in the U.S., window coverings were much more contentious, essentially serving as a proxy for the struggle between the country’s cities and its suburbs. At that point, large, single-pane “picture windows” had become a hallmark of suburban homes. Because they offered an unobstructed view of the outdoors and let in lots of sunshine, having them was thought to be good for one’s health, Andrea Vesentini, who wrote the book Indoor America: The Interior Landscape of Postwar Suburbia, told me. Such bright living spaces were considered “impossible in cities,” according to Vesentini, because tall, dense buildings blocked the sun. Plus, leaving your windows uncovered in an urban area was believed to be dangerous. “Close your curtains when you leave the house” so you “don’t tempt burglars,” one paper cautioned urban residents in 1985. The police often complained that people who forgot to cover their windows were “putting valuable goods on display.” Although city dwellers might have needed to draw their curtains, suburban homeowners, with their big open windows, were declaring that they had nothing to fear.

However, the embrace of bare windows still eventually radiated out to cities, at least in wealthy areas. In 2000, a New York Times article remarked that sheer curtains—or no curtains—had become vogue in Manhattan. The trend started in the 1990s with a desire for simple window coverings, the interior designer Thomas Jayne, who works with well-off clients in places such as New York City and New Orleans, told me. “And then, in the last decade or two, there’s been people who say they don’t want any curtains,” Jayne said. This might sound surprising. In dense neighborhoods, people tend “to want more privacy, because you’re right on top of each other,” Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, an architecture professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who studies window light, told me. But these factors are less pressing for rich city dwellers, who likely have more rooms and, therefore, more windows. “You have more choice,” Van Den Wymelenberg told me—including, crucially, the option to have some covered windows for privacy and some uncovered windows for light.

Although allowing a view into your home can seem vulnerable, it is actually a statement of security. Dutch people, for example, rarely cover their windows at night, letting their neighbors see inside as an act of faith. Similarly, in rural Denmark, drawn curtains are treated with suspicion, especially when newly arrived immigrants are the people keeping their blinds down. In the U.S., the uncovered window is perhaps less an expression of communal trust than one of personal protection. Wealthier homeowners, who can also afford state-of-the-art security systems, may not feel that they need shades. These curtainless windows have become one of our subtlest statements of privilege. They demand our attention, not only because they give us a peek inside beautiful homes, but also because they project the type of confidence and stability that few of us can dream of replicating.

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