The anatomy of the human body and the laws of mathematics are ever entwined in the fragile harmonies of proportion. Our sense of proportion begins with the structure of the body, an idea that dates back to the writings of Vitruvius himself, the eminent architect of the Roman era in the 1st century BC. His conclusion has long survived the principles of logic and the measure of time, evidenced by Vitruvian Man, the drawing made by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century, a definitive symbol of proportion in which the extended arms and legs of the male figure find their furthest reach at the edges of the closed circumference of a circle and the mathematical perfection of the square. Symmetry. Geometry. Equilibrium. Of course, Vitruvian Man doubles as the Christ figure stretched upon a cross, a religious icon of everlasting art historical consequence. Christ—the anatomy of man in God’s image—and the cross—the structural geometric intersection—align in precise aesthetic and spiritual equipoise.
Proportion determines the logic of design for any object, whether a dress, a lamp, or an automobile. Good proportion results from a marriage of line, length, width, weight, balance, and shape. Add volume. And material. And a reductionist’s precision. When all of these elements come together in a form that seems inevitable, then the object’s proportion is the final measure of its beauty. The long, slender stalk of the calla lily, say, supports the graceful rounded line of the flower, its delicate petals unfolding in an ineffable flourish. Organic. Geometric. Poetic. Here is a beautifully proportioned gift of nature.
Proportion can be gauged in the juxtaposition of one object to another—perhaps a couch is too large in the context of other pieces of furniture in a room; at the same time, without realizing it, we rely on proportion to evaluate everyday objects in a rational world: If a building is too tall for its footprint, how will it endure the laws of gravity? If the seat of a chair is too low to the ground, how comfortable do we expect it to be? If a coat is too large for the woman who wears it, how reliable is her judgment?
Two masters of proportion, reduction, and distillation in the 20th century were the towering architects Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Corbu, as he was known, advanced the Vitruvian idea of the human body as a foundation for architectural design in his universal system of proportion called the Modulor, which relied on the measurements of the human figure to improve the appearance and function of his buildings. Mies, on the other hand, relied on the mathematical elegance of the “golden ratio”—“the width is to the length as the length is to the sum of the width and length”—to create, among other buildings, the Farnsworth House, a masterpiece of proportion and logic.
The correct proportion of the human body has been susceptible to attitudes and customs over the course of history. In the Baroque era, for example, fleshy, voluptuous women were in fashion and the clothing of the period accommodated a broader profile. The contours of women’s fashions changed considerably, when, in the 19th century, the hourglass figure became all the rage. And that would give way to a much sleeker and more geometric silhouette in the early 20th century. Edward Steichen, the renowned Vogue photographer, posed Marion Morehouse (Mrs. E. E. Cummings), his favorite model, in a lamé dress by Lucien Lelong that epitomized the slender flapper column of the 1920s. Not only are the contours of her body so gracefully draped and breezily suggested, Steichen also captured the impeccable proportion of the dress in her stance, poise, and attitude. The pearls, shoes, chair, and cigarette compose a portrait of high style and consummate chic.
In 1940s couture, the New Look rearranged the silhouette, adding geometry to the figure in counterpoint to the natural curves of the body. The brilliant reductionism in Erwin Blumenfeld’s photograph of a model in a lavish floor-length Dior gown is an ode to proportion: The triangular skirt, the model’s angled elbow, the semicircular fan in echo of her hair evoke a composition of proportional balance that might have drawn inspiration from Kandinsky.
Horst further accentuated the geometry of Dior in his photograph of Suzy Parker leaning against a studio backdrop, her pleated skirt fanning out in a sexy riff on the hourglass figure of yore.
Just as in fashion the sinewy hourglass figure was streamlined to the taut silhouette of the flapper column, in transportation the majesty of the horse gave way to the mechanized horseless buggy, and, eventually, to the grandeur of fine engineering. The Duesenberg Cord, for example, struck an impeccable proportion with its monumental profile and commanding stance that came to represent the highest ambitions of the industrial age.
Bill Cunningham, the late photographer and arbiter of style, once said that “fashion is the armor with which to survive the realities of everyday life.” Scavullo photographed Nan Kempner, New York’s idea of the perfect hostess, showing off her armor in a simple black column topped with a metallic Yves Saint Laurent bolero coat. Here is a portrait of exemplary proportion struck in the contrast of light and dark, organic and geometric, line, length, width, weight, balance, and shape—a calla lily by any other name.
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