proportion |prəˈpôr sh ən| (noun):
a part, share, or number considered in comparative relation to a whole

Whenever I’m dressing someone, be it myself or a client or a friend, one of the very first things I study are their proportions. You see, sizes and numbers really don’t matter, but if you want to create a balanced impression, proportions definitely do. Once you understand them thoroughly, choosing flattering clothes is almost child’s play. Necklines, the length of sleeves and hemlines, the shape of the shoulders, skirt style or pant legs – everything has to do with proportions. I made this little illustration to get you started:

How to understand your proportions and dress for your style | from

How to use the illustration

The best way to do this is to strip down to pretty much nothing, or at least something fitted, then stand in front of full-figure mirror (and please, throw any negative thoughts about your wonderful body out the window). Study how the areas from my illustration relate to each other on your body.

If you want, you can use a measuring tape to see how the numbers relate to each other, especially if you think it is hard to simply see it. I, for instance, have a bust of about 41″/104 cm, a waist of 33″/83 cm and hips of 44″/111 cm – but here’s the thing: the actual numbers are not what’s important here. You can’t tell, for instance, if a bust of 41″/104 cm is “large” or not purely based on the number; you need to see it in comparison to the width of the shoulders, the waist and the hips.

This is where those numbers can make things easier. In my case, we can see that my hips are slightly wider than my bust, for instance, and we can also see that my waist is smaller than my hips and bust. With a little effort and practice, though, you’ll definitely be able to see the proportions without any measurements. With that in mind, I suggest you skip the measuring tape if you tend to obsess over measurements and sizes and such. Remember, the actual number or size doesn’t matter, only how they relate to each other.

Some of the relations are easier to see than others. One of the trickier ones is between your upper and lower body (no. 4 and 8 in my illustration). The girl in the illustration is built rather like me, so her torso is rather short. If she had a long torso, it would probably look more like this:

How to understand your proportions and dress for your style | from

According to my experience, people with defined waists usually have an average or short upper body, whereas the longer torso will usually be straighter. If you’ve often complained that you have a never-ending derrière, you might simply have a short torso, making the distance between your waist and where your butt ends, larger than if you have a longer upper body.

How to dress your proportions

Fashion often plays rather dramatically with proportions, especially in magazine editorials (so there’s a tip if you need to look more edgy/avant garde/make a statement!). Still, what most people think looks best is when there is balance between the upper and lower body, and between the shoulders and hips. Most bodies aren’t perfectly balanced, but there are plenty of tricks to create that illusion. Allow me to – yet again – illustrate, with one “right” and one “wrong” outfit for our girl:

How to understand your proportions and dress for your style | from

We can all agree that the “wrong” outfit is very wrong, no? The outline for the body is the same for both looks, so what exactly is it that makes them so different? The most important answer, I think, is lines. Allow me:

How to understand your proportions and dress for your style | from

The mind is a funny thing, you see. When you see a line, your eye and mind automatically follows it, and this movement kind of enhances the line, making it, in a way, longer. Most of us knows that horizontal stripes will make something look wider, and that vertical lines do the opposite, but there are much more subtle uses of lines of which we can take advantage.

In the “right” outfit above, you can see how both the necklace and neckline of the top create a V, which makes the torso longer, prevents the dreaded uniboob, and also lengthens the neck. The flowy bottom of the skirt prevents a harsh line that cuts of the legs, and even the shoes have a V-opening to elongate the legs even more. The belt blends in with the skirt, so it doesn’t create a harsh line, but still draws attention to the waist.

In the “wrong” outfit, the top is… well, Cookie and I simply couldn’t think of any body that would look good in this. The high neckline shortens the neck considerably. The raglan sleeves make the bust look huge (especially paired with all that ruching), and it certainly doesn’t help that they cut off the arm at its widest point. The wide cuff bracelets divide the arms even more. From the bust down, the top hides the waist completely, and ends at the widest point of the hips. This line is even more enhanced by the shorts and their cuffs. The boots continue to create horizontal lines, chopping up the legs and making everything wider and shorter.

You might also have noticed that the “right” lines for this girl have a slight curve to them, whereas the “wrong” ones are all very blunt. Still, what’s wrong for Illustration Girl (and me), might be right for someone else. Here’s the thing: you need to know what you want. I want an even smaller waist, clean lines without fuss, to make my neck appear longer and prevent that uniboob. But you might want your hips to appear wider, or to make your arms look shorter, or to make your bust larger, and that means you’ll have to find the lines that help you achieve that.

Other tricks

Once you understand how it’s usually all about creating balance, and doing this with optical illusions, a whole new world tends to open up. Personally, I think the most important idea is to create the right lines in an outfit, but there are some more things you can do to trick the eye, making areas look larger/come towards you, or smaller/shrink away. Here are some examples:

How to understand your proportions and dress for your style | from

1.A dark, plain top and a bottom with a busy, colourful print will enlarge the hips.

2. The color gradient that pales towards the top will make the shoulders seem bigger. The wide, shallow neckline widens the shoulders, and the decor draws attention to the widest part of the shoulder.

3. A busy pattern with strong contrasts will make the whole dress (and thus the body) seem larger. This pattern also accentuates the hourglass shape, because it follows the same lines, just in a more exaggerated manner.

4. A sweetheart neckline with sparkly decoration will draw attention to the bust.

5. A patterned top and plain skirt in a darker colour makes the hips seem smaller.

6. All the lines on the upper body go from up close to the neck and down towards the waist, which will make the shoulders more narrow. The lapels are very narrow, which also makes the upper body more narrow. The gold buttons draw the attention away from the shoulders.

7. The white, slightly unusual collar draws the attention up towards the face and collarbones. The rest of the body becomes more of a background due to the dark colour and the body-skimming shape.

8. A deep v-neck that starts close to the neck will make the bust appear smaller. Lace details draw the attention away from the bust area.

As you can see, there are more “tricks” for drawing attention to something than to hide something. I’ve seen some people who seem to want to hide everything about their appearance, but as there is nowhere to direct the attention, nothing is really hidden anyway. Whenever I work with someone’s style, I always focus on bringing attention to the positive, because if you do that, the bits they’re less pleased with will automatically become a background.

When people become conscious of the concept of proportions and lines and optical illusions, there are some who at first find it a bit restrictive. I can’t wear patterned skirts anymore? I shouldn’t wear belts because my waist isn’t my best area? Well, first: you absolutely can dress in whatever you desire, no matter if it’s “right” or “wrong” for your shape. But if you’re struggling with your wardrobe, if you feel like nothing you put on makes you look the way you want, then perhaps thinking about proportions and lines can change that. Because once you know how to work your proportions, you’ll always know how to achieve the shape you want. It’s a bit like magic, really.