Fashion
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Fashion Tips: Understanding the Rule of Thirds

There’s a concept called Rule of Thirds that will help you put together more flattering outfits almost instantly. No matter how cute the individual pieces are, if the proportion of your outfit is off, it may look frumpy or unflattering.

I often mention this 1/3 to 2/3 ratio when discussing my outfits, and it usually elicits some requests for more explanation.

make a better outfit by understanding rule of thirds

This concept is actually based in architecture. As Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is architecture; it is a matter of proportions.”

A balanced one-to-one ratio is boring and expected, whereas unbalanced proportions are interesting and pleasing to look at. It’s generally accepted that a 1/3 to 2/3 ratio is the most aesthetically pleasing division of spaces, and that’s called the Golden Ratio in artistic circles.

Take a look at the Eiffel Tower, often cited as a perfect example of this concept. I drew lines to show the Golden Ratio in action — in this case, 2/3 on the top and 1/3 on the bottom.

Painters and photographers use this same ratio to compose their works. For example, it’s much more interesting to place the horizon of a landscape in the top or bottom third of the image, rather than the middle.

This is what a lot of people tend to do… that’s if they even bother to straighten the horizon. #petpeeve

See how much better this one looks, with the horizon in the top 1/3 of the picture?

This rule of thirds applies to fashion as well! Take a look at this well-balanced outfit.

In this case, the 1/3 is on the top, and the 2/3 is on the bottom.

I achieved this balance by front-tucking my top. If I had left it untucked, it would have cut me right in half, which can look boxy and unflattering.

The front tuck brings the top up, allowing more of my legs to show, and emphasizing my waist.

This is an example with a basic t-shirt and jeans outfit.

You may notice in both of the above pictures, I drew the bottom line at the end of the pants, not the bottom of the shoes.

This is because in both cases, the jeans are dark and my skin is light, so there’s high contrast between the jeans and my legs.

In this 2nd example, the shoes are pretty much the color of my skin, and in the first example, the shoes are very strappy, so you really see more skin than shoe.

Visually, the outfit sort of stops at the bottom of the pants, at least for ratio purposes. If I was wearing boots that covered the foot and leg, I would draw the line at the bottom of the boots.

Here’s another outfit with the black jeans to illustrate my point.

Also, I drew the top line at the top of the collar of the jacket, but perhaps it should be drawn at the top of the leopard sweater… either way, the 1/3 to 2/3 ratio is in effect here. It doesn’t have to be exact, it’s just a guideline.

You don’t have to front tuck every top to achieve the right balance, though. Some tops are the right length to work with your outfit without a tuck. This is why we are seeing a return of shorter tops, now that pant lengths are rising.

If you wear a longer top with crop pants, you will end up with a 50/50 split, or a 1:1 ratio, rather than 2:1.

This sweater is about 24″ long, so on my 5’5″ frame, I can easily wear it untucked with most of my jeans and still get a pretty good 2:1 ratio.

But sometimes switching pants is easier than finding a different top. If you’re wearing a longer top you love, and you put on cropped pants and realize your legs look short and stumpy, try longer pants.

Or add a shoe the same color as the pants, to create even more length on the bottom to offset the length on top.

Here’s an example with shorts. In this case, the top is 2/3 and the shorts are 1/3.

And here’s an example with a dressThe dress is the 2/3 and the legs and shoes are 1/3. I guess this is why I like knee-length dresses so much!

Of course, long dresses can be flattering too, but this is one reason why belting a long dress is more flattering than allowing it to hang all one length. The belt creates that 1/3 to 2/3 ratio, instead of having one long column.

And this is also why most long dresses have a waist band of some sort. Take this jumpsuit for example. See how the tie waist divides it into thirds? The top of the jumpsuit is 1/3, and the bottom is 2/3.

So as you put future outfits together, think in terms of dividing the overall look into thirds rather than halves or quarters.

There are lots of ways to do this, but basically, you want to look for a long and a shorter garment to put together instead of two items that are the same length.

How about cardigans? There are several factors to consider when layering. Color and level of contrast between the items in your outfit will affect how your eye reads the proportions, so every outfit is different, but I’ll show you a common example.

Longer cardigans are trending, so I found an outfit with an ivory tank, black pants, and camel long cardigan. I actually see two golden ratios in this outfit. First, let’s divide it into thirds.

Usually, the under layer is the one that draws the eye, and that’s the case here. The tank is 1/3 of the look, and the pants are 2/3. The cardigan frames the outfit, but you still see that golden ratio in the under layer.

But you also get the 2:1 ratio going on with the cardigan and the pants, except the cardigan is 2/3 and the pants are 1/3. It kind of cool, that it works both ways.

A few have asked about tunics. I’m not a big fan of tunics in general because they tend to add visual weight due to the lack of structure and longer length. However, it can work.

Who remembers this blast from the past? I think everyone had this tunic in at least three colors!

This look is a little dated, but you can see how a  longer tunic with black leggings and boots can give you an illusion of the 1:2 ratio. It’s not exact, but it’s not 1:1 either.

Here’s the same tunic with black leggings and contrasting boots. Again, the outfit is a bit dated, but I think it’s a pleasing balance of proportions.

The tunic is the 2/3, and the boots are the 1/3, and then the leggings provide some separation… maybe that’s not the right way to analyze it, but it makes sense to me.

Also, the 3/4 sleeves and the drapey material of this tunic help it not look too voluminous. The sleeves draw the eye to the waist, and the material drapes nicely over the hips rather than hanging straight.

What about a skirt and top? In this case, the skirt, top, and legs are each 1/3 of the outfit. I don’t have a lot of skirt examples, because frankly, I struggle to find tops that are short enough, and front tucking can look odd.

Here’s one I found… I drew the lines where the items SHOULD end. I think this would look better if the skirt were a couple inches longer, and the sweater perhaps an inch shorter. I don’t like where it cuts across my belly.

Here’s that same sweater with a skirt that’s about an inch longer, and with black tights and black boots. I like this better.

Remember, it’s not an exact science, and it doesn’t have to measure out perfectly. It’s just a guideline.

It often requires some final tweaking and zhuzhing to get an outfit just right — maybe tucking in your top, adding a jacket, switching to longer pants, changing the color or style of your shoes, etc.

Play around with it, and have fun! And the next time you look in the mirror, and you like your outfit but feel like something isn’t quite right, check the proportions. It may just require a simple tweak, like tucking in your top, or matching your shoe to your pants to make all the difference!

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65 thoughts on “Fashion Tips: Understanding the Rule of Thirds

  1. This was a good post. I do think your point would be clearer if you actually “ violated” the rule and showed how that did not look as good. For example untucked shirts that cut you in half,..lets actually see that. A before and after could drive home the point better for some of us. 

    1. Yeah, I tried to do that, but it proved to be harder than I expected. My whole wardrobe is designed to work for my individual body and what I feel is most flattering on me. The best I could do was the untucked vs front tuck example. I do talk through these concepts in every Try-On Haul, so if I find some more good examples down the road, I can update this post.

      1. Even that now helped! And of course not being able to go out and try on clothes for “ bad” examples makes it impossible to do this in the way you could have once. Thanks for being such a bright spot during the pandemic!

  2. I appreciate the great explanation – I never really knew what you meant by this rule! My body type is different than yours. I’m very long-waisted and have short legs (I’m 5’5″ overall) and I’m a size 14 or 16 depending on the brand. I carry my weight in my middle, so a front-tuck looks awful on me. Any suggestions on how someone with my body type should apply the rule of thirds?

    1. It’s all about figuring out what works for you. Front tucking is only necessary when the shirt is too long. You can buy shorter shirts, or wear longer pants with a heel to elongate the lower body. Sometimes adding a shorter layer on top does the trick – the eye sees the shorter layer, not the longer one. That depends on the color combination, though. I try to talk through these concepts when I share outfits, it’s hard to cover all the possibilities in one post. 🙂 But feel free to ask anytime about a specific look, and I’ll try to help!

  3. Great post.. I saved the pics so I can refer to them in the future. I like the before and after pic with the pink tee, it really helps to see the difference a front tuck makes  or possibly choosing a shorter shirt maybe? I think I finally get it.

  4. I know you have talked about the 1/3 ratios before and didn’t quite understand. Great explanation with pictures. Thank you! I totally get it. Now….I have to try and do it!

  5. This post was so helpful. There’s so many times I’ll look at my outfit and it just looks all wrong. Now I’m going to be looking at my thirds ratio. The side by side right and wrong pictures really helps see how the portions effect an outfit. 
    Thank you and stay well! 

  6. This was FABULOUS thank u! I see this problem sometimes, but laying it out like this makes it so much easier to spot and fix more easily. THANK YOU!!

  7. Good post! I understand it much better now. I’m thinking athletic wear probably doesn’t follow the rule because many of us want to cover our bum. 

  8. Thanks for the explanation. It helps. Especially the picture with the pink top out and tucked to see the wrong and right way.

  9. Interesting post. I think I get where you’re coming from. If I understand this correctly, tunics and tops that hit below the hips are no-nos as they basically cut a look in half. Is that right? 

    1. It depends, there are different lengths of tunics, different lengths of leggings/pants, and footwear is a factor. So it can work out. I usually wear tunics with taller boots, if I wear them. They’re tricky in general because they tend to add visual weight due to their shape and lack of structure.

    2. But then what would you wear a long tunic top with? Tunics can be very fun and stylish. I have a long navy sleeveless tunic I bought last summer at Anthropologie that I wore with white skinny jeans and wedge sandals; thought it looked really good. 

  10. Is there a way to pin this on pinterest? Then I can keep it (I can keep the email, but it might get lost in my in-box.) This is so helpful. Thank you!

    1. Sure! I’d love for you to pin it. Do you see the red SAVE button hovering on the pictures? Or you can add the Pinterest extension to your browser, so you can pin on any site.

      1. Found it! I follow you on pinterest, but I was able to pin this specific post to my pinterest board “clothes”. Thank you!

  11. Love this, JoLynne!  I find the rule of thirds easy with pants, but almost impossible with shorts and shorter skirts.  I am most comfortable in a Bermuda length short or a knee length denim skirt…but both of those cut my body exactly in half.  It seems to me that the only option is to go shorter (yikes!) or go monochromatic (like your dress example) so my clothing creates the 2/3 and legs 1/3.  Neither is ideal…are there any other options?

  12. Thank you so much for putting together this post!  I pinned one of the pictures for future reference.  I know that you have explained this visual trick to us before, but this compilation made the most sense to me.  I hope that you are enjoying your day!

  13. What tweak would you suggest for the basic t-shirt and jeans outfit for someone in which a front tuck isn’t flattering?

    1. Just buy shirts that are a good length without tucking. It was hard when the styles were longer, but it’s getting easier again b/c they’re starting to make tops shorter. And tailoring is always an option too.

  14. Thank you for the great lesson in 1/3 2/3. I’ll now be checking my outfits when I dress and tweaking if necessary. The one with the pink tee really drove the point home. 

  15. This was a great post! Well explained with good examples. I love concrete advice I can use to add zhuzhing!

  16. Very Helpful. Thank you!  Now I realize why some outfits don’t look right on me. If I had longer legs this would probably be easier for me.🤔 

  17. I love tunics!  I don’t think those pictures look dated—-although I’ve never been a fan of knee high boots. I always wondered why you didn’t like longer tops.   To me the shorter tops always look like they are cutting people at an unflattering point in the midsection. 

    1. They can – it depends on body type too. I have wide hips, and they’re low compared to where my waist is. When I wear longer tops, they cut across the widest part of my hips, which just looks boxy and adds visual weight. I’m better off going higher, and showing some of my curves. Remember the 2:1 thing is a guideline. It’s not about measuring exactly – there’s a range. You have to take your body type and shape into consideration, and tweak it to work for you.

  18. I loved this post and it makes perfect sense to me. Tweaking an outfit that looks good in your head but not the mirror is a great suggestion. I am getting weary of the stay at home, no fun in your life existence and have spent way too much money lately on your items. Oh well, support the ones you love, right?

  19. Loved this. I really liked seeing the lines you drew on the pictures. That helped me get it. When looking at your last picture example I thought of a question. When choosing what length necklace does the proportion apply to that?

  20. I love this post the lines the visuals helps tremendously!! Thank you so much!
    There is definitely alot to it. Still learning. I love the wrap dress but it was gone I hope I can get it. Love it with the boots.

    Xoxo

  21. I know you’ve covered this before, but this clicked more for me today. I’ve wondered before when you count shoes and when you don’t. I’ve also wondered how to count the long cardigan with shorter top. Both explained! Thank you so much for the work of putting all this together!! 

    1. Yeah, and remember, with the shoes especially (I didn’t read that anywhere; that’s just how I see it.) This is not an exact science. Everyone will “see” things a little differently.

  22. An excellent tutorial on the thirds concept! Drawing the lines is very beneficial and I will try to remember to picture lines on my outfit (in my mind) to check out the thirds. I especially like that you included a picture with a cardigan as I am always cold and always wearing an extra layer. This post is why you are my favourite blogger!

  23. You are SO smart!! This is a great post and I’m definitely going to keep a copy going forward! Thanks so much!!

  24. Thank you for this post. You’ve mentioned the rule of thirds before and illustrated, but this post really helped drive it home. Love your blog!

  25. Really informative post.  Even though I had heard and understood the basic concept of this rule, the examples and explanations really help to make it more real.

  26. As a retired teacher, I am thrilled to have found your site! I never new about the 1/3 and 2/3 guidelines. In this time of the pandemic, I still like to get get dressed with my makeup each day. It helps me examine my wardrobe and put outfits together in a whole new way!!
    Thank you!!

  27. Wow!! I learned something new. Ive always been very “scared” of styling and fashion, being plus size. I wear oversized cardigans, black pants, long shirts. The only worry I have is that, I don’t like tucking in my shirts. Have a belly doesn’t allow me to feel comfortable with this, perhaps buying shorter tops. Im going to be mindful of my proportions…..can you give samples of people in larger sizes- like 14-16?

  28. I found your post very interesting, but cannot see any midi or below the knee skirts / dresses explained, is this because there is no way for these to look flattering? I am 1.73 tall which leads me to choosing shoes with heels that aren’t too high, and I am 55 years old which makes me prefer wearing skirts/dresses that are below the knee. But often it makes me look grandma’ish and I wear pants instead.

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