On Proportion

What does it mean to be perfectly proportioned? Is it possible? The biologist JBS Haldane wrote about species “being the right size.” What he meant was that in nature, the size and shape of an organism is always a trade-off: between speed and strength, for instance. And the way that organisms work imposes some absolute rules: there’s a minimum viable size for mammals, based on their circulation, and (thankfully) a maximum for spiders.

More dubious are the studies on human beauty which crop up every so often, claiming to have resolved beauty into one or another average shape or perfect ratio. To say that one blandly balanced face or another is the best might be statistically true, but to me they are as unexciting as the prospect of filling my house with artworks chosen by committee. 

To abstract one step further, one enduring idea of beauty has been a particular proportion, the so-called golden ratio, which divides an object in a way that balances the smaller part, the larger, and the total (such that b:a equals a:(a+b), for you geometry fans). Attempts have been made, with varying success, to prove that the ratio explains Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Debussy’s music.

Alan Flusser’s classic Style and the Man has aged pretty well, for the most part, thanks to its stress on proportion. Its caution against tiny shirt collars and lapels remains sound, even if his tutting about the expanding figures of “mature male bread-lovers” does not. The warning about low gorges on jackets might be dated (he’s surveying the fallout of 1980s Armani) but the principle behind it holds true in our age of high gorges reaching almost behind the ears.

Respect the ratios. Shirt collar to jacket collar. Jacket length to leg length. Trouser crease down the middle of the knee. It’s the fundamentals of what Flusser calls “permanent fashion.” These basic proportions and rules have provided permanent style wisdom for countless readers. They understand aesthetics as regularity, balance and ratio. Call it neoclassical menswear, if you will.

Yet in most creative fields, designers have a love/hate relationship with formal rules. They bring clarity, balance and order, but come at the cost of expressive freedom. We see this even in architecture, the art most constrained by practical concerns (such as buildings not collapsing.) The nineteenth-century British engineer W. J. Cockburn Muir warned of architecture being ruined by the mathematical planner and “the abominable tyranny of his Arithmetic.”

There’s something brilliant about standardizing an optimal shape. The shipping container is a quietly revolutionary invention. But there are downsides. Most suits in London are made to the same generic style by one of a few big overseas manufacturers. They are not bad products, but careful trade-offs, optimized for their audience. So are most films, from lightweight summer blockbusters to Oscar-bait historical sagas. And, as Cockburn Muir feared, so are most new buildings, save for the most prestigious projects.

Proportion is well and good, but overly strict ratios leave everything looking stiff and lifeless. (On the other hand, look at how Flusser actually dresses and you’ll see a man unconstrained by rules.) There’s grace in proportion, but charm in deviation. People will not let that piece of mild wisdom from Coco Chanel die: before you leave the house, take off one thing. Neoclassical menswear needs its own decree: before you adjust everything, disregard one rule.

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