By Caroline Slattery

“Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions.” – Coco Chanel

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder — but a good mathematician would tell you that beauty lies in a ratio known as the Divine Proportion. Phi (ɸ), the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet, helps explain this proportion. While phi is widely accepted as a fraternity or sorority symbol, in math it represents an irrational constant number. (To those who haven’t taken math in a while, an irrational number is one with an infinite number of digits after the decimal place. You might recall the number Pi (π) is one such number.)

Phi helps explain the ratio obtained when an area is split into two segments. The first is a square (with equal height and width); the second is a rectangle (with the same width). See illustration below.

This illustration shows the equivalence ɸ/1 = 1/ ɸ-1, so ɸ is approximately 1.618. (Cross multiply, to get the quadratic equation ɸ2 – ɸ – 1 = 0. Solve from there.) This is the relationship known as the Divine Proportion, but has also been given many other names including the Golden Ratio and the Golden Mean.

The area, pronounced “fee,” is considered the building block of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, as well as the Parthenon in Greece. History proves architects have deliberately used phi in their designs. It has not yet been proven why this ratio is desired, but it has been proven that it’s aesthetically pleasing.

If fashion is indeed architecture, as Chanel suggests, why don’t couturiers use the same proportions — phi to be specific — that architects use in their designs?

Some analysts believe Coco Chanel did use phi in her designs. She claimed her revolutionary skirt length was meant to cover knees, a part of the human anatomy she openly disliked, when in reality the proportions of her clothes were mathematically planned around phi.

“All of the great fashion couturiers used the Divine Proportion, perhaps by instinct,” Antonio Gonzalez de Cosio, fashion editor and author, told USA TODAY College in an email. Take for example, “Balenciaga with his architectonical designs [or] Dior creating his new look with very small waist lines in proportion to the body.” Couture is about clothes with “harmony of form and of balance.”

Whether designers use phi in their creations subconsciously or in secrecy we may never know. But there are fashion houses that take their architectural instincts public, including Gianfranco Ferre and PHI. Ferre was a former architect who transitioned from sketching blueprints for skyscrapers to sketching couture for the runway. His designs are distinguishable from most because of their sharp edges and constructed forms. PHI, a clothing line led by creative director Andreas Melbostad that closed its doors in 2009, was named after the Divine Proportion itself, suggesting that its tailors consciously used the ratio in their creations.

Many believe that the intentional usage of phi in clothing design is extreme — that too much science in an art detracts from its beauty. Sometimes the beauty of couture is in its imperfection. Impeccable tailoring and harmony of proportions accompanied by a chaotic pattern or a non-functional zipper to break convention creates beauty. Fashion starts where predictable ends.

The best designers use the harmony and balance of phi, but also put content into fashion. Take Jean Paul Gaultier, for instance, who often uses his shows as a display of political opinions. These are the creations that are both timeless in their construction and ephemeral in their message.

So what now to do with this knowledge of phi?

Primarily, people can use phi to identify couture and other high-quality products. The infamously hard-to-obtain Birkin bag, for instance, adheres to the Divine Proportion. The ratio lends itself to creations all over the world and can be used to construct beauty of many forms. Not convinced yet? Check out these stylish gals for tips on how you can use phi with items your own closet.

Photos by Evan Woods

Above, a fashionable chick uses a skirt as the (ɸ-1) proportion in two ways. The first area is from the top of her head to the bottom of the skirt. The second is from the top of the skirt to the ankles.


The skirt on this chic lady represents the perfect square of the proportion where the shirt is ɸ-1. The Golden Ratio is seen again where the area goes from her waist to her toes.


This fashionista used the Divine Proportion from the top of her head to her hemline.


The trendsetter on the right shows how to elongate legs with a good heel to play with the Golden Ratio.

Caroline Slattery goes to Southern Methodist University.

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