Proportion, Pant Rise, and History

One of the topics that comes up continually in my classes, lectures, and client sessions is top length. Specifically the idea that when it comes to untucked tops, shorter tops work better with skirts while longer tops work better with pants.

Let’s take a look at two figures:

Correct length for tops worn with skirts and pants

These guys illustrate what we’ve come to expect, proportion-wise, from skirt and pant outfits. Skirts tend to fall at the natural waist and we expect a shorter torso silhouette with them, either a tucked-and-belted look or an untucked top that hits about two fingers’ width below the navel. Pants waistbands generally fall lower on the body (unless they are high-waisted), and we expect a longer torso silhouette with them. Untucked tops that hit approximately three fingers’ width above the crotchpoint are harmonious with most pants. (These are approximations, of course. What works for YOUR figure will all depend on your proportions, curves, and fit preferences.)

Here’s what happens if we reverse them:

Nothing catastrophic, of course, but both figures look just slightly off. The blouse falls too far into the skirt’s line and the lacy top hits a bit too high on those slacks.

If your separates-based outfits are feeling slightly off and you can’t figure out why, see if it might have to do with top length. With skirts, untucked tops should be short. With pants, untucked tops should be long. This also means that if you have very long or short legs and wish to create balance, you can do so by varying your untucked top length and determining which bottoms look and work best. If, like me, long tops fight with your hips, consider shirttail hems as a workaround; They’re long in front, but curve up at the sides which can help accommodate hips. And naturally, there will be considerable variation depending on your height, proportions, curves, and preferences.*

NOW. Here’s the historical aspect of this post. Consider how pant rises have changed over the decades.

jeans high rise low rise

Between the 1970s when Farrah Fawcett wore her high-rise jeans and the 1990s when Gwen Stefani wore her super low-rise jeans, huge shifts in expectations of the female silhouette took place. At this point, high, low, and mid-rise styles are all available, but back in the 90s the only jeans you could find that rode above your hip bones were either vintage or marketed to older women. And my guess is that the advent of super low-rise pants and jeans influenced our current visual expectations: We want to see longer tops worn with pants because we expect women to be wearing pants that fall below their natural waists, even if the pant waistband is being obscured by an untucked top.

Low-rise skirts never really caught on – at least, not with the prevalence of low-rise pants – so our expectation for skirts has remained mostly static: Skirts hit at the natural waist, so we expect a shorter torso line when skirts are involved. Tucking works, but shorter length untucked tops can work too.

That’s my take, anyways. Anyone else have a theory? Why do we want to see shorter tops and higher waists with skirts, but prefer longer tops and lower waists with pants? Do you find that this guideline works for you, do you tweak it to work with your figure, or even do the opposite?

*As always, none of my figure flattery advice posts should be considered gospel, including this one, and I fully expect you to read them with a grain of salt. Style “rules” are merely guidelines, no matter who is dispensing them. I trust you to use your judgment. And I trust you to take what applies to you, discard the rest, and assume positive intent.

Farrah via Mail Online, Gwen via Seventeen

Originally posted 2014-06-10 06:16:46.

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20 Responses to “Proportion, Pant Rise, and History”

  1. Sonja

    Hihi, I love the two pictures … I don’t actually have anything edifying to add, just that jeans were still worn with quite a high rise in the early nineties – as I observed when I recently rewatched the first seasons of Beverly Hills, 90210. I was shocked to see how outdated the outfits looked, they were the next big thing when I was a teenager. 🙂 Time flies!

    • Sally McGraw

      True! And good point. It depends which end of the 90s you’re looking at, and which groups of people and/or TV series. I think of early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which had amazingly high rises, but within a few seasons it was all hip-huggers.

  2. Patty

    Thank you, Sally. This article and yesterday’s have been enlightening. After years of buying petite sizes for my 5’5″ frame, it suddenly occurred to me that the reason I need petites is that I have a long torso: my legs are shorter than they would be if I had an “average” torso. And, my arms are shorter than “average” but don’t look so because of my long torso. I just really hadn’t analyzed my body before this. Also, your comment about thinking about proportion if an outfit is slightly off was spot-on.

  3. JB

    I’ve often wondered what you mean when you occasionally refer to tops that work well with pants or a skirt, so thanks for the detailed explanation. But what if a skirt isn’t as full as the one pictured? It seems to me that a longer top might look less odd with a pencil skirt, especially if it was on the longer side. No?

    • Hilary

      I agree – with a straight skirt, an even longer top can work if the ratio is right, say, 2:1. Also, I’m one of those people who looks better in shorter sweaters or jackets, even with pants, I think because of where my high hip falls.

    • Sally McGraw

      Yes, and all of this is relative, of course! A straighter skirt can take a somewhat longer top, and depending on how you’re built these guidelines may wiggle quite a bit.

  4. Heather Stritzke

    I finally figured out the shirt length- bottom silhouette correlation. However, as a huge fan of pants at my natural waist I find that it’s much easier to wear shorter un-tucked styles than with lower rise pants. I love the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 70’s pants silhouettes which I find much more versatile in terms of shirt length and tucked vs. un-tucked. As one of the other comments mentioned, if the pants look more early 90’s than one of those other eras they look very dated instead of vintage inspired.

  5. PolarSamovar

    Huh. So interesting. I have relatively wide, short waist and long rise, so I’ve always worn long tops with both skirts and pants. Eliding the exact size and location of my waist is pretty much my #1 figure flattery priority. And I see what you mean. Yet another reason, probably, why I prefer dresses to skirts. I’m wearing a skirt today, and one of my shorter tops, which still hits at my high hip. The skirt is narrow and the top is loose and wide, so I think it works OK, but this is definitely something for me to think about some more.

    • Sally McGraw

      Dresses are definitely easier! They do much of the work for you by deciding where your waist is (whether it’s truly there or not) … which can sometimes have proportion-skewing results, but usually works out fine. Also, just to reiterate, these are just guidelines! As you play around with length and proportion, you may find that the longer side of short tops is best for you when it comes to skirts.

  6. Shawna McComber

    Great post, Sally! I am old enough to have had to cope with all of these styles, as well as the accompanying comments from the fashion world that whatever is current is of course the best and the other is not just passe but horrible and unflattering. That is until it comes back into style and then it is the best.

    I have a long rise, proportionately my legs and torso are average but I am taller than average so they are longer than average if that makes sense. With a long rise, low rise pants/jeans are a nightmare. Especially since I also have no bum to hold them up. But finding tops long enough is often difficult. I had this same problem in the eighties when it was the thing to wear a long tee shirt with stirrup pants. It never covered my bum. Often if I want a tunic length top I buy a short dress.

    I like the long over short proportion best, though I also like a high waist with a cropped top. I like to wear the longer tops with skirts but wear the skirt a few inches above my knee. I find getting the proportions right is the hardest thing, not because I don’t know what it should be but just finding the right items to create that proportion and finding them also in the right style, colour and seasonally appropriate.

    • Sally McGraw

      YES! Amazing how styles that were “it” at one point would become reviled in the next. I feel like those attitudes have faded somewhat now, thank goodness, but remember them well. And remember being able to find anything besides low-rise jeans for what felt like an age.

  7. fashionforgiants

    I don’t know why the eye expects a shorter torso line with skirts, but I know mine certainly does. I’m wearing a skirt outfit today, in fact, with a longer top and it just doesn’t look right to me. I experiment with different proportions but usually go back to the tried and true because the experiments rarely look right to me.

  8. crtfly

    Thanks for the proportions lesson. I see what you mean.

    As for pants, I think ones that hit at the natural waistline look better on most people. I like low rise pants only on women who have a toned, flat, athletic looking abdomen. That’s just my opinion. Your results may vary.


    • shayelea

      Lower rises are often favored by women with very curvy figures of all sizes because it eliminates the “can’t find pants that fit both my hips and my waist” problem. In addition, I find that pants that hit just above my hip bones are much more comfortable than pants that hit at my wearing waist (which is where I prefer my skirts to hit), because the waistband on pants cuts in more if it’s situated higher up. Of course, a trouser labeled as mid-rise typically hits low enough on me because garment makers typically don’t adjust rise enough for plus sizes. That’s not to say that I’m flashing my midriff (for reasons other than its lack of tone). Just that there are plenty of reasons why a person with some pudge might not choose to wear pants at the natural waist.

  9. Joanna

    This explains a problem I have with my wardrobe! I have challenges finding tops that fit anyway (busty, short waist, but everything seems to be cut long and lean) and often find that my tops don’t hit in the right place when I wear skirts – they’re too long. They work with my jeans though, and with jeans I’m always trying to prevent indecent exposure when bending over, so I appreciate the extra length. Now I see why. My only issue now is that I am doing Project 333 and I can’t have too many tops that only with pants or with skirts. Maybe I need to decide which one I favor, or find another way to make things work (layering longer tanks underneath with jeans?) Dresses are so much easier!

  10. Emily

    Theory: Visual elements look better when evenly proportioned. The skirt is a smaller visual element so it looks better with a “smaller” top (or to put it another way, it breaks the average figure neatly in three). The trousers are a long visual element and go well with a long top, breaking the mythical average figure in two.

  11. Roxane

    When straight maxi skirts were in back in the mid-late 1990s, I wore longer shirts with them easily, but I guess they work visually much like pants. I sometimes still wear longer shirts with maxi skirts, but now often with a belt over the shirt at my natural waist.

  12. Nathalie Desrayaud

    I actually prefer the plants with the shorter top, and I think it’s because it better fits the 2/3 rule. The outfits you posted look closer to half and half which I find less visually pleasing than a top that is half the visual length as the bottom. I also like really long shirts with shorter skirts to flip the two thirds proportions. I just want to tuck that pussy-bow blouse into the skirt, and it would look fab! But of course I understand that you’re looking for untucked options.
    I completely agree with your shirt-tail hem suggestion, and I would even add the option of tops with a slit on each side. I generally find those two options to be fabulously flattering on my curves.

  13. Ketutar Jensen

    I agree with Emily, here. Though I prefer your second alternative, that’s supposed to be “slightly off”. In my eyes the first alternative is “slightly off” 😀 The second option is better in 1/2 – 2/1 proportions, the first one is more 1/1 proportions.
    Another thing is that back at the 80’s, the waist could also be lowered or non-existant, a bit like in the 20’s flapper fashion. At that time we were used to see those lines and proportions, so we expected to see those lines. Like you say, Sally. So perhaps we got used to see the waist in “right place” during the 90’s and 00’s.