Thursday, October 18, 2012

Back to the Basics: Proportionality

This may be the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to the appearance of a suit.  A suit can fit the wearer perfectly but if it does not have pleasing proportions then it fails at its main goal: to make the wearer presentable and attractive to the eye.

Throughout history humankind has been trying different styles and pieces of clothing in an attempt to create the most balanced, pleasing look.

click images to enlarge

If you ask me, humanity reached the pinnacle of proportionality during the 1930s and into the 1940s.  There's a reason it's called the 'Golden Era' of men's style.

The human mind is programmed to identify and be attracted to harmonized shapes.  One such complex yet ultimate simply proportional shape is the human body.  If one is to study its proportions, the shape of the human body, like many other things found in nature, follows elemental natural laws.  The Golden Ratio, also known as the "Divine Proportion", has informed artists for centuries as to the ideal attractive proportions to create in their work.  Derived from Fibonacci numbers, the Golden Ratio can be found throughout different parts of the human body.

Through the ages the human body has changed very little.  Sure, in recent years men tend to be slightly taller and a larger number of men are heavier weight, but the basics are still the same.  Check out Vitruvian Man from 1487 below:

The Vitruvian Man was meant to depict ideal male proportions and it is just as useful a tool today as it was so many centuries ago.  Notice the vertical half-way point is roughly at the crotch.  Above that mark are the hips, torso, and the head.  Below that mark are the legs and feet.

Using the Golden Ratio we find that the proportionally attractive separation point of the human body is roughly the navel/waist area.  This is an important factor and should be remembered for later.

Other parts of the human body, including the arms and face, are based upon the Golden Ratio.

So, why is the navel/waist area such an important item when it comes to dressing?  Because our goal in dressing well should be to present ourselves in an as aesthetically pleasing manner as possible and what better way to do that than to put the Golden Ratio to work?

For example, look at the two photos below.
The photo on the left is of a typical 1930s 3-piece suit while the one on the right is of a typical modern 3-piece suit.  The 1930s suit on the left is very well proportioned and attractive to the eye while the modern suit on the right is not.

Let's look at why.
Below is the same photo of the two men with vest, jacket and trouser length and position emphasized.  Blue indicates the vest, red the jacket, and yellow the trousers.
Notice how the 1930s suit on the left is based around the navel/waist area: the trousers sit at or about the waist while the vest skirt comes down to just below the waist.  The modern suit on the right, however, is based around the crotch area: the trousers hang right on the hips and the vest skirt comes down to just below the hips.  In other words, the 1930s suit on the left is based upon the Golden Ratio, giving the wearer the appearance of long legs and an athletic build, while the modern suit on the right is based around the physical halfway point, giving the wearer the appearance of a longer torso and shorter legs: a top-heavy silhouette that is not very flattering on any man.

Also note that the 1930s jacket has stronger shoulders and is slightly shorter in the skirt (a typical vintage drape jacket) than the modern jacket, which is slightly longer and has weaker shoulders.  The modern longer jacket length does not help the top-heavy silhouette of the modern suit.

Compare these suits to the Vitruvian Man and the differences become apparent.

In order to have a more attractive appearance when wearing a suit, base your proportions around the Golden Ratio point: the navel/waist.  Choose high-waisted trousers that sit at the natural waist, a short vest that comes down to meet the trouser waistband and doesn't let any shirt show between the two, and a suit jacket that's slightly shorter than usual.  Meeting these requirements today when most suits are made to be 'hip', fashionable, and/or ironic is a difficult task but not impossible.

It is important for a man to know how to wear a suit and wear it well.  A man knows what looks right and how a garment should fit, as he's either been taught how or has come to realize it for himself. He knows and follows the code of timeless style, not fashion.  A boy can throw on his father's overly large suit and think himself handsome. That same boy can also slip into one of his own old and much too small suits and perceive himself as being fashionable. The latter of the two seems to be the current fashion trend.  

Hopefully soon men will again understand how important proportionality is to appearance and go back to the Golden Ratio Point that was so common during the Golden Era.  I'll never understand why we moved away from it.


garofit said...

Great post, I have thoroughly enjoyed this. Hopefully an eye opener for many.

UKUKU said...

An interesting read, but to play devil's advocate: Notwithstanding what you have said about proportions, a fan of modern suits could easily argue that the vintage suit lacks sex appeal with it's heavier fabric, wide trousers and severe pleats.

While I am a fan of vintage clothing, I would find it understandable if someone were to say that the guy on the right looks more likely to let his hair down and party. So I would argue that the vintage suit seems more appropriate for a business environment where one would want to look reliable, impressive, imposing even. But for a young 'player' I can't see that look working.

Obviously people's tastes are shaped by the current trends, but I think it's key to remember that there were trends in the 20s, the 30s, 40s and 50s as well.
As such I think that as we are in a unique position to draw upon inspiration from all these different decades, sure: bring back the 'proportional architecture suit', but there will still be a place for the 'relaxed, sexual suit' now that it has been unleashed, proportional or not.

Will said...

Of course personal style is up to the individual. However, a classic suit with good proportions says more about a man than a badly proportioned suit, whether the man is a 'player' or a business man.

There were definitely trends throughout the Golden Era but most are not remembered. The Mr. T suit of the 1950s, the Peacock Revolution, the Jazz suit of the 1920s are mostly forgotten like trends usually are. Hopefully the 'sexual suit' of today will be forgotten by future generations as well.

Cary Grant, arguably the sexiest man of the 20th century, wore classic and well proportioned suits and clothing. He represents the classy, mysterious, and responsible type of sexiness we see throughout his life and he portrayed in his movies. Men wanted to be like Cary Grant and women wanted to be with him. That type of sexiness takes class, style, and patience rarely found in men today. It shows deepness, class, and charisma.

The modern suit represents a fun-loving, keg-stand, cheap kind of sexiness that you regret two days later when the photos are posted on Facebook. It's seemingly fun and sexy after a few drinks but turns out not to be the next morning. It tells others that the wearer does not care about his appearance enough to wear a suit well.

The 1930s suit represents the kind of sexiness that is genuine and takes experience to pull off while the modern suit represents a sexiness that is a basic, animal thing.

Carmelo Pugliatti said...

Will,you have right,but is also true that in 30s and 40s many suits were out of proportion.
Think to baggy pants,or to ultra-broad shoulders,think to the bold look.
So is true that 30s and 40s silhouette were better,but only for the more classic and less fashonable suits.

Richard Høy said...

Nice post Will! Being a child of the late 80s I am a fan of the slimmer cut of todays suits/jeans etc, but I do appreciate the way vintage clothing was based more around the golden ratio that you mention.

Todays jeans are worn around ones hip which makes it almost impossible not to show a "plumbers crack" or ones underwear. It also makes you look like that cartoon character Johnny Bravo (BIG torso, SHORT legs)which I don't like.

Wheter or not you like skinny jeans, this is the rise that I think should be the "standard" just like it was back in the day. (I guess high waisted jeans went out of fashion for men in the early 90s)


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