Sewing Best Practice – What is Proportion?

Atelier Versace Fall 2012 Front Row

Atelier Versace Fall 2012 Front Row

Have you ever worn a garment that fits but there was just something about it that didn’t look quite right on your body? It may have been flattering too but something was a bit off? The problem may be one of proportion, or “scale” as it’s also called. Proportion is related to fit but it’s also a topic all to itself. Claire Shaeffer alludes to proportion and scale on page 15 of Couture Sewing Techniques under the header “Ordering A Couture Design At The House of Dior”:

“If you were to lay your toile on top of the original toile for the prototype, you’d probably find that they’re quite different in cut even though they look exactly the same on dress forms. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the construction of a couture garment. Your toile will reflect the changes made to accommodate, flatter and fit your individual figure. It takes an atelier worker many years to learn adjustments that will be most flattering to the client and then execute them on a toile without visibly altering the design”

The operative words here with respect to proportion and scale are: ”accommodate” and ”without visibly altering the design”. How can a sewist “accommodate” a wearer without ”without visibly altering the design”? I think the way to understand the concept is to look at examples of real people wearing garments that are well proportioned and scaled to their body and also view the reverse; garments that may be the right size and may fit but still for various reasons just don’t flatter the wearer due to mistakes of proportion and scale. It’s a very common thing to see on sewing blogs garments that are poorly proportioned however for this exercise I can’t really use photos or links to sewing blogs because that would be cruel, however, on the red carpet it’s also very common to see examples of proportion/scale decisions gone awry. And unlike regular people celebrities are fair game. So as an example I’ve chosen Christine Hendricks from Mad Men because she made numerous blunders with respect to proportion and scale in the early days of her red carpet appearances. For an example of good proportion I’ll use garments made by Carolyn who we know from the popular blog Diary of a Sewing Fanatic. Carolyn is a master of proportion, she knows exactly where the various design details need to be scaled to her body and she applies her rules consistently with every garment she makes.

Hem Length

Christina goes first:

Now all of us wish we had fabulous stems right? But not all of us are dancers and yet we still want our hems to make our legs look as attractive as possible. Christina’s hem mistakes are:

The gold dress is too short and makes her hips look wider
The pink dress (a disaster on several levels) has a hem too long on her right leg and an asymmetrical hem that cuts her off at mid-calf on the left leg right at the widest point. This makes her look heavier than she actually is.
The black dress hitting right below her kneecap gives no shape to her legs and shortens her a tad too much overall
Here is Christina with her perfect hem length:
A hem that hits right in the middle of her kneecap lengthens her legs quite a bit and also shapes them. Notice she’s waring the same shoes as the black dress above. What is really interesting is that in the three examples above we’re only talking about 2 inches max but it’s a crucial 2 inches.

Carolyn knows her ideal hem hits right at the bottom of her knee cap, and she uses that proportion consistently and regardless of style. I chose three examples here but it you go to her blog you’ll see this rule applied in dozens and dozens of dresses and skirts.

Sleeve Length and Width

Once again we’ll start with Christina. For some reason Christina doesn’t seem to realize that her bust size and bust point proportionally affects how a sleeve looks. On the white top the angled sleeve that ends right at her waist makes her look like she has no waist at all. All we see are boobs and shapeless arms. In the middle dress the ruched sleeves and lace are also draws the eye to her boobs at the expense of her beautiful decolletage. Also the peaked sleeve cap is too small in proportion to her upper arm. This black blouse has a similar problem as in the white shirt, the sleeve should be shorter, narrower and above her elbows. Also the angled drag lines from her neck to her armpits mean indicates there is too much fabric in the upper bodice.

The sleeve length on the brown dress is great for Christina and in fact if the dress with the sheet sleeves had sleeves this length she would have looked 100% better. Notice it’s literally the same type pf sleeve minus the peaked sleeve cap, e.g. a center seam on the outer arm with ruching. The black dress with a sheer, ruched 3/4 sleeve like this and a smooth sleeve cap would have been killah.

Carolyn long ago figured out her ideal sleeve hem and length. On the red dress we see wider sleeve, however the sleeve cap is smooth and the outer edge of the sleeve hugs Carolyn’s arm and does not “wing out” . The length sleeve on the purple dress is in proportion to her bust size and bust point. This sleeve is about the same length as in Christina’s white top but it works for Carolyn because it’s in proportion to her bust size and bust point. The hounds tooth dress has shorter sleeve and notice it’s a tad more snug than the red/black dress because merely using the same sleeve width made shorter would not be flattering. So that’s short primer on proportion and scale as it applies to hems and sleeves. Proportion and scale is a much broader topic than what I’ve covered here. An in-depth analysis of scale and proportion is in the current issue of Threads; it’s a great article that every sewiest should read. Also I’d like to thank Carolyn for allowing me to use photos from her blog to illustrate this topic!