Many people think horizontal stripes make them look short, fat, and wide.
Perhaps the whole horizontal = wide idea started because of visuals like this one. Which rectangle looks wider?
The right-hand one, right? But they’re actually the same size.
This would seem to support our fear of horizontal stripes. However, just because a single horizontal line has a widening effect, doesn’t mean a series of lines—aka stripes—will do the same thing.
Which square looks wider?
The one on the right, of course. Even though that one is made up of vertical lines, which should be slimming, they’ve actually made the square look shorter and wider.
When parallel lines are narrow and equally spaced, our eyes tend to follow them. So in following the horizontal lines we look up and down; whereas in following the vertical lines, we look from side-to-side.
When our eyes move up and down, we take in the entire height of the object, making it seem taller (and thus narrower). Conversely, when our eyes move from side-to-side, we take in the entire width of the object, making it seem wider (and thus shorter).
According to Psychology Today:
“This [two squares] illusion was discovered by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1925, and is also known as the Helmholtz illusion. Helmholtz’s explanation of the illusion was that a filled out area looks longer than an unfilled area of the same size. His thought was that the figure with horizontal stripes looks filled and hence longer from bottom up, whereas the square with vertical lines looks filled and hence longer from left to right.”
Here’s another example, known as the Oppel-Kundt illusion. Is there more distance from A to B, or B to C?
Point B is actually in the middle, but it looks like it’s closer to A than C. The vertical stripes make the area between B and C look wider than it really is.
Applying the illusion to clothes
From what we’ve seen so far, you might think you should throw out everything with vertical stripes and buy only horizontal stripes forever. Not so fast.
Which of these figures looks thinner?
It’s hard to say. They’re identically sized—in appearance and reality.
In fact, as Clothes for You tells us sternly, “You cannot say that vertical lines create height or horizontal ones increase breadth because it all depends on how they are placed” (page 80).
Likewise, the women below look roughly the same size, even though one is in vertical stripes and the other in horizontal.
The bottom line
The important part is not which direction the lines are going, but which way our eyes move across the lines.
Anything that makes our eyes move up and down looks taller and thinner. Anything that makes our eyes move side-to-side looks shorter and wider.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to tell which will do the trick for you. Horizontal stripes don’t always make us look from side to side. And vertical stripes don’t always make us look from top to bottom.
Since human shapes are more complex than two-dimensional squares, there are a lot of other factors to consider! Stay tuned for a post that will explain them in detail.
Brogaard, Berit. Feb. 13, 2015. “What Makes You Look Fat: Vertical or Horizontal Lines?” Psychology Today.
Goldstein, Harriet, and Vetta Goldstein. 1954. Art in Everyday Life. New York, Macmillan. (OCoLC)564020217. Electronic reproduction.
Graves Ryan, Mildred, and Velma Phillips. 1954. Clothes for You. New York,
Appleton-Century-Crofts. (OCoLC)786289. Electronic reproduction. [S.l.]: HathiTrust Digital Library, 2010.
Thompson, Peter, and Kyriaki Mikellidou. April 2011. “Applying the Helmholtz illusion to fashion: horizontal stripes won’t make you look fatter.” Iperception 2(1): 69–76. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485773/#s4. doi: 10.1068/i0405.
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