Many people believe horizontal stripes should be avoided at all costs, because apparently they make you look short, fat, and wide.
But do stripes really have this effect, and if so, why? Let’s find out.
Perhaps the idea of horizontal = wide started because of visuals like this one:
(From page 70, Art in Everyday Life.)
Clearly the rectangle on the left looks taller and narrower, and the one on the right looks shorter and wider.
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.
Here the square on the left looks taller and narrower than the one on the right (they are both squares of the same dimensions):
(From page 79, Clothes for You.)
Because 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 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.”
Take a look at this image, known as the Oppel-Kundt illusion:
(From “Applying the Helmholtz illusion to fashion: horizontal stripes won’t make you look fatter.”)
Authors Thompson and Mikellidou explain that Line B looks like it’s closer to Line A than Line C, even though it’s actually in the middle. So the vertical stripes are making area B–C look wider than it really is.
These images cast doubt on the claim that horizontal stripes = wide and vertical stripes = narrow.
Maybe we should all wear horizontal stripes to look tall and thin, and avoid vertical stripes at all costs? Let’s see how they look on identically-sized dresses:
(From page 79, Clothes for You.)
Does the dress on the left look more flattering than the one on the right? It’s hard to say.
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” (80).
Likewise, these women look roughly the same size to me, even though one is in vertical stripes and the other in horizontal:
There’s more to the story than just whether the lines are horizontal or vertical.
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.
People assume horizontal stripes make us look across them, but the trick is knowing that 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.
So although line direction (i.e., horizontal vs. vertical) certainly has an effect, there are also a lot of other factors that determine which way our eyes move. 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. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201502/what-makes-you-look-fat-vertical-or-horizontal-lines.
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.