A Crash Course in the Golden Ratio

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.

  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Interesting, Sal! I’ve read about the GR with regard to math, and with facial proportions. These style examples are helpful. I do like long-over-long for me, because I like the “slouchy” look – but I can really see the diff. in your models.

  • Jenni

    thanks for this super clear explanation, sally! i do have a question about skirts: with fair skin and a darker, shortish skirt, does the eye still read my legs as being part of the bottom 2/3? i’ve been confused about this, thinking that i would need to wear dark stockings, or stick to pants, in order to get that 2/3rds on the bottom thing working. any thoughts? do shoes make a difference to proportions in this case?

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Great question, Jenni, and one I totally failed to address in the post! (I’ll go in and revise.) In the end, it’s mostly about focusing on thirds instead of halves or quarters. So with fair skin and a darker, shortish skirt your sweater/blouse is the top third, skirt is the middle third, and legs are the bottom third. (Roughly, of course.) No tights necessary.

      Shoe choice won’t make a ton of difference in terms of the ratio, but if elongating your legs overall is a figure-flattery priority, then that’s something to consider! OR if you feel like your legs aren’t quite taking up a full third or are taking up more than a third, you can pick heels/flats to nudge everything into alignment.

      Hope that helps!

      • Jenni

        thank you, that totally helps!

  • Cee

    Thanks for this post Sally, it’s interesting to see the maths behind why some outfits just look ‘right.’ I just wondered what your opinion was on longer-length cardigans over skirts. I know you do this look a lot (I do) and in this context, do we count the belt as dividing the top 1/3?

    I only ask because sometimes, my own pairings of dresses with longer cardigans and belts looks ‘off.’ I wonder if this is because the golden ratio doesn’t quite work in the same way?

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Another great question, Cee!

      So, if I’m doing a long cardigan over a long skirt, I do prefer to belt it like so: http://www.alreadypretty.com/2011/12/daily-outfit-12111.html And yes, in this case the belt is essentially creating the top third. But if I were to skip the belt, the cardigan is just about long enough to comprise the top 2/3 of the outfit. So, since it’s still thirds, it still mostly works. (This is also why long tunics over skinny pants/leggings works – the top is 2/3, bottom is 1/3. Roughly.)

      Also at play here is how the garments are cut. Both the cardigan and the skirt flare a bit at the bottom. If one piece was clingy or straight cut and the other was flared, it might not work as well. Could that be the case when you do this type of outfit? Or have you tried belting at different spots on your torso?

      But you’re also right to say that sometimes this ratio thing just doesn’t apply. Proportions and curves, accessorization preferences and other factors figure in. Definitely NOT a hard and fast rule!

  • http://www.amidprivilege.com Lisa

    Yes!!! I have always thought this principle solved at least 80% of the questions on what to wear:).

  • Mel

    Great post! Again! LOVE the visuals.

    This is something I’ve been pondering. I’ve hit what really works for me…but can’t figure out exactly why it works…and also how can I translate whatever it is that is working to other outfits.

    I’m short, 5’4″, and with thick thighs, and *very* busty. What works for me are longish cropped pants (would be tea length in a skirt), a shorter top, a bulky necklace, a longer cardi and 2-3″ heels. There is something about that proportion that works perfectly on me. It’s by far my best look.

    The other best look is a flowy skirt, tea length, shorter top, necklace with some visual bulk, longer 3rd piece, and 2-3″ heels.

    So…how do I translate those proportions to my winter clothes when I’m stuck wearing pants? I wear the cropped pants as long as I can, but in MN you eventually have to switch over to pants. :)

    I feel like volume is also an issue here, but I can’t see where/how. I can wear the same top/cardi with long pants and the “look” isn’t nearly as good as it is with the cropped pants. It’s something about the proportions….but what?

    On that 2/5, 3/5’s outfit….would it help if they had added a black/red belt, or even a solid black belt? Would that subtly get the proportions back to 1/3, 2/3?
    Or what if they had added a chunky necklace of some sort, with some black in it? Does that break up the red so it visually reads as shorter, thus kicking it back into the 1/3 category?

    Another question. Does volume make a difference on the sleeves? When you’re planning on the top being 1/3, does it visually make a difference if the top is long-sleeved, thus kicking the visual of the top into 1/2? Whereas if the top was short sleeved/sleeveless it would keep the top in the 1/3 visual?

    Can you tell I’ve been giving this some thought? I find myself analyzing outfits wherever I go, thinking about what could they do to make this outfit better, and trying to apply my findings to my own outfits.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Without seeing you, Mel, I couldn’t really say why your ideal outfit works. But yes, volume is definitely a factor so you may be creating balance within your figure in several important ways. For winter you could certainly do tea-length skirts and tights and boots.

      Yes, belting the 2/5 to 3/5 outfit would help balance and other accessories can scoot things back toward thirds, too.

      Yes, sleeve length is a factor, but a more subtle one. The garment hems comprise the major breaks in the outfit, so they’re what they eye generally sees first. On many figures 3/4 sleeves are ideal because they end right around the 1/3 mark where the waist is small. (I scrunch/cuff many of my sleeves for this reason.)

      Good questions!

  • bubu

    Wow, very very interesting – I have heard much about this ratio in art, but never seen it applied to fashion, but your examples have me well convinced. THis is very useful advice when heading into the closet. I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile the desire to implement this with my fear of tucking in shirts because they make my hips feel so big… but perhaps the benefit of pleasing proportions would balance that out. Will experiment and find out!

    • Viktoria

      I wore untucked shirts for years, thinking the same as you exactly. Then I started using my digital camera instead of my mirror when I tried outfits on, and it was a real revelation. Yes, proportions have something to do with it! No more untucked shirts for me! And now I have use for all those belts I collected.

      I recommend using a camera when trying out new combinations. I don´t know why, but one never sees it as it is in the mirror.

  • http://simplehappyfree.blogspot.com Rose

    I’d never really thought about applying the notion to clothing, but hey, what *doesn’t* the golden ratio apply to (sorry, math nerd)? Thanks for this!

    I hate to nitpick, but the text describes the first maxi skirt outfit as being ‘on the far right,’ but it’s on the left in the picture. That confused me for a bit, before I figured out what was going on. Did the image get flipped horizontally somehow?

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Hahaha, nope. Just getting my directions mixed up. Again. Thanks, Rose. ;)

  • http://waltzerl.blogspot.com Lisa Walter

    Great information, very helpful. Thank you!

  • Aziraphale

    I’m very familiar with the concept. The golden ratio (or golden mean, as I first learned it) was probably the first example I encountered of crossover material between two disciplines. I can clearly remember my calculus prof talking about it way back in first year, because it struck me as one of those irrefutable truths that you have an innate understanding of without ever having consciously thought about — you know, one of those “oh, of course!” moments. Then it came up a short time later in a biology class — I can remember the prof putting up some visuals on the overhead, examples of the golden proportion in nature, and the one that stuck in my brain was a cross-section of a spiral shell, where the radius diminishes by 1/3 with each turn of the spiral.

    Years later the golden ratio was formally addressed by the prof in an illustration class, but as it turns out I’d been using the concept consistently and instinctively in nearly all of my artwork.

    Oddly, I’ve never consciously used it when getting dressed. I probably use it, though. Many of us probably do. We’re naturally sensitive to the “golden” proportions. But thanks for addressing the topic formally, because it’s a reminder to think about it — a tool to add to the arsenal!

  • Lindsey

    Just in case anyone would like a friendly mathematical explanation of the golden rule, here’s a great link (and a personal favorite!)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRD4gb0p5RM

    It’s a little long, but definitely worth the watch =) the discussion of the golden rule starts around 7:20

  • Jill

    Overall the golden mean works for me. I tend go against it by wearing longer tops over my long waist, generous hips/booty, and short legs, probably more like 2/5, 3/5. But I find that if a top hits right around the widest point of my hips it somehow emphasizes my small waist and curvy hips nicely. I think it probably also makes me look shorter, but I’m short, so c’est la vie!

    My absolute favorite trick (try this, ladies!) is to wear skinny jeans that bunch up at the bottom, widening my lower legs relative to my thighs and creating the illusion of a slim column. I know we pear-ish shapes are advised to wear boot cut or wider-legged pants, but unless they fit perfectly, I think they still make my bottom look bigger than my top.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Woot! Thanks for sharing this, Jill. I knew there was somebody out there who preferred to bend or break this “rule.”

      • Jill

        Thank you! Also, per your excellent advice, am wearing a belted shirt under a cardigan for the first time today – totally love it.

    • Paula

      Aha! Thank you for saying that about the skinny jeans! I’m a pear too and really like the way skinnies look on me with some ankle bunching but I read everywhere that it’s a no-no.
      As far as jeans go, I think the amount of spandex in the jeans is what makes or breaks it for me with my larger derriere, regardless of cut. Too much spandex and I might as well be wearing leggings, it’s just too clingy. My jeans need a little more structure back there!

  • http://fashionforgiants.blogspot.com Gracey at Fashion for Giants

    This is so helpful. I tend to just feel my way through closets and outfits but on those days that I can’t, I’ll keep these tips in mind!

  • Pam K

    Great post! I’ve never thought about proportion this way and it makes perfect sense. So now I know why tops that are a little longer look better on my short-waisted frame. Question about dresses and tunics. Would these items constitute 2/3 on the top and then the legs on the bottom be 1/3?
    Thank you, Sal!

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Yep! With tunics/dresses those pieces most often form a 2/3 portion on top, with legs as the remaining 1/3. If you belt, you may create 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 instead. Glad this helps, Pam K!

  • http://www.meganmaedaily.com/ Megan Mae

    Yep! I was aware of this, but I don’t really stick to it. I do occasionally, but most days I don’t shoot for any specific ratio. I dress until things look right to my eyes.

  • kb

    I love these looks, but always have trouble finding tops that are short enough. It seems like everything is “long and lean” which doesn’t help short me. Do you have go to brands for professional petite length(I’m 5’2″) tops?

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Talbots is a great bet for professional petite! Old Navy has petite lengths for casual looks, too.

  • http://ragsagainstthemachine.com Terri

    Interesting…and this explains what “felt” off about my look today.

  • http://goinggulia.wordpress.com Julia H. @ Going Gulia

    This. Is. Genius.
    It’s crazy, but I can totally see which outfits look better, even without knowing the ratio rule. Now that I understand the “science” behind it, I’ll be sure to apply it to my outfits all the time! Thanks, Sally :)

  • http://evelynsews.blogspot.com Evelyn

    I am a mathematician, and I’m familiar with the golden ratio from the math world. It’s a very cool number. In a certain mathematical sense, it’s the “most irrational” number, which is really badass. I won’t get into the math because many others have done it better than I.
    I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m jumping all over you-I admire you very much, and I love your blog. But I see people do this a lot, and I wish they wouldn’t, where they use 1/3 and 2/3 as a stand-in for “the” golden ratio, when it is really a crude approximation. It’s not just you, and like I said, I don’t want to sound like an old crochety person sitting on the math porch telling the kids to get off my lawn. (But maybe I need to face the truth that I am.)
    The golden ratio is a very specific number defined in a particular way. It has a value of about 1.618. The ratio of 2/3 to 1/3 is 2, so it isn’t all that close to the golden ratio, although it is closer than the ratios of 1/2 to 1/2 (which is 1) or 3/4 to 1/4 (which is 3). I thought it was interesting that one of the other proportions you highlighted, 3/5 to 2/5, has the ratio 1.5, which is actually closer to the golden ratio than 2/3 to 1/3. But I digress. For the golden ratio to be meaningful, we need to be careful about what we call the golden ratio, and what is just a pleasing looking proportion. If 1/3 and 2/3 is a good proportion, which I agree it is, that’s fine, but it’s not THE golden ratio. (Maybe it’s just *your* golden ratio.)
    Wait, where did this soapbox come from? Sorry to be a mathy crankster. Or a cranky mathster. The golden ratio is cool! I like your blog!

  • Kristin

    A-ha! Now I understand why the shorter cardis are working on me. I’m 5′ 2″ and pear-shaped. I was told that the “rule” was to have your shirt or cardi hit your hips at the widest part. and so I’ve been wearing long cardis for years. But this basically cut me in half visually. So last month I switched to shorter cardis, and that is giving me a 1/3 to 2/3 ratio, and I look a lot less “stumpy.”

    I’ve also learned about belting from your website. I really can get away with the longer cardis if I belt my shirt, creating a 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 appearance.

  • Rachel Q

    I’m 5’2″ and feel like my legs and torso are more at a 3/5 to 2/5 ratio physically or maybe even 1/2 and 1/2. I have short legs. Does this limit me to high waisted skirts and pants in order to achieve that golden ratio? Other ideas?

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Ahhh, this ratio may not work at all for you, Rachel Q! Torso and leg length definitely impact how useful these guidelines can be. But if you like the overall look, then high-waisted bottoms are an option. You can also belt higher on your torso when wearing dresses or over cardigans and tops to bring the waistline up visually. Other tips for balancing a long torso here: http://www.alreadypretty.com/2012/03/reader-request-how-to-balance-a-long-torso.html Consider those and your own figure flattery priorities, and see if there are some hybrid techniques.

      Figure flattery tips never work for everyone, AND some tips will do one thing while canceling out another. It’s a balancing act!

  • http://frumpfactor.wordpress.com Anne @ The Frump Factor

    Wow, I really am spatially challenged. I have such a hard time picturing this! It’s easy in the outfits with trousers, but when the bare legs are showing, I’m looking to see what proportion the top and bottom are in relation to each other, not to the legs. When I try to view the bare legs as part of the equation, I can’t visualize if they should go together with the bottoms (as 2/3) or if they stand alone (as 1/3). I guess they can do either?

    I have noticed that splitting the body exactly in half, vertically, does me no favors. Maybe this is all I can handle! But I have a feeling that I do something like 2/5 & 3/5 much of the time. 1/3 is very small, isn’t it? (head hurts now). But thanks for trying to explain it! It’s not your fault that I can’t quite “see.”

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