I had the pleasure of teaching a community ed course on the basics of figure flattery back in May, and realized that some of what I discussed in that class hadn’t yet been discussed here. So let’s rectify that, shall we? I’ve long used my instincts and eye to determine what looked best on myself and others, but over the past year or so I’ve realized that there are some guidelines that can help aid my instincts and eye when I doubt myself. I still flub, the guidelines sometimes fail, and – just like everyone – I have my share of unfortunate outfits. But keeping a few of these guidelines in mind has helped me improve my batting average. The most useful guideline of the bunch has been the Golden Ratio.
I’ve found many definitions and explanations of this concept, many of them contradictory, but the bottom line is that the golden ratio has applications in mathematics, architecture, and art that pre-date any use in fashion. The aspect of this concept that interests us as it pertains to dressing is that most figures are more appealing to the observing eye if visually divided into thirds.
Here you see the Eiffel Tower, a structure that breaks visually into roughly 2/3 at the top, 1/3 at the bottom, and is considered one of the greatest structures ever erected. Many other buildings – including the Parthenon and the Great Mosque of Kairouan – are said to have been built to reflect this ratio in various elements of design. Painters and photographers use visual applications of the ratio to compose their works. The history is a little wiggly and there’s definitely disagreement, but many agree that a 2/3 to 1/3 division is generally aesthetically pleasing. (Or that thirds often work better than halves or quarters, as we’ll see below.) So how does that apply to dressing?
I’m not a huge fan of solid bright tops with black bottoms, but that pairing helps illustrate this concept. No example is perfect, but this one should give you the basic idea! On the far left is a maxi skirt outfit. Notice that the long tank top bisects the figure. On women with defined hips, this longer length top will cling to the butt, thighs, and hips. The second outfit pictured shows a considerably shorter top, and divides the figure into 1/3 up top and 2/3 on the bottom. See how much taller that second figure appears? This top also allows the skirt to flow freely, and doesn’t draw attention to the hips, but that’s secondary. The next outfit shows a long draped top with a pencil skirt. Again, the figure is bisected and the shirt ends abruptly at what is the widest point on the torso for many women. The final outfit shows the same skirt with a shorter top, and again the figure appears more proportionate. In this case, we discover that it’s mostly about focusing on thirds instead of halves or quarters. So with a shortish skirt and bare legs, your sweater/blouse comprises the top third, skirt is the middle third, and legs are the bottom third. (Roughly, of course.) You certainly needn’t wear hosiery in the same shade as your skirt so that your bottom sector looks more like a solid 2/3 – you’re still doing thirds even with bare legs.
Now let’s look at some pants examples.
In my opinion, pants have a bit more wiggle room, ratio-wise, than skirts. (I’m also eyeballing my ratios, so I’m sure some of you will disagree with me on the numbers. Just roll with it conceptually, if you would.) Far left is a half and half outfit. If that top were a bit longer and the pants slimmer, it’d veer over into long-over-lean, tunic territory which generally puts 2/3 at the top and 1/3 at the bottom. But at this length, it cuts the figure just about in half. The second option looks passable to me, but the top is still a smidgen longer than ideal. Option three shows an approximate 1/3 to 2/3 division and the top stops where it should – about three fingers’ width above crotchpoint. And the last outfit shows what happens when you push too far: At 1/4 to 3/4, the figure looks like it is ALL legs.
NOW. This will not work for everyone. As a matter of fact, nothing does! There are no universal, foolproof, one-rule-fits-all guidelines in style, figure flattery, or dressing. There just aren’t. Depending on your curves, your torso length, your figure flattery priorities, and your own personal preferences, this whole 2/3 to 1/3 thing may be completely useless to you. That’s fine. None of my figure flattery advice posts should be considered gospel, including this one, and I fully expect you to read them with a grain of salt. Style “rules” are merely guidelines, no matter who is dispensing them. I trust you to use your judgment, take what applies to you, discard the rest, and assume positive intent.
My hope, though, is that seeing these examples and learning about this idea might help a few of you understand why certain outfits make you peer into the mirror and say, “Huh. Something is definitely off here, but I haven’t the foggiest what it is.” Many times, it’s a matter of proportions and garment length, and applying the Golden Ratio may make you feel more … is on-kilter a possibility? No? Let’s go with “aligned,” then.
Are you familiar with the Golden Ratio? In art, architecture, and math? Or in dressing? When you do separates, do you generally aim for these proportions? If not, what works better for you and why? (Imogen has some great posts on this same topic here and here.)
Eiffel Tower image via The Fashion Code.