The Importance of Balance in Dress

SeesawWhat happens if you put a big kid on one end of a seesaw and a little kid on the other end? Bam! The big kid hits the ground and the little kid pops up in the air…and stays there. Game over. No ride for them. Because a seesaw works best if the riders are of equal size. They balance each other out.

It’s the same way with dress.

The eye seeks balance unconsciously. So if elements of an outfit balance each other out, our eyes move over the ensemble easily. But if they don’t, if there’s too much of one thing and not enough of another, the mind stumbles, trying to find balance. If we can’t find it, it becomes unsettling. Chaotic. We look away.

Which can be a very big problem if you’re trying to lead. If you want people to listen to you and sway them to your way of thinking, you need – among other things – to give them balance in your clothes. Otherwise, they’ll look away.

The ancient Greeks solved this problem mathematically. As noted in the article about proportion, everything boiled down to math for them, including art, dress, and the human body. So if it was divisible, it could be balanced. If not, it couldn’t.

For example:

One Half

The body is divided in half, offering equal balance.

One Half BalanceStylebop
Jil Sander

One Third, Two Thirds

The body is divided in thirds, offering one third of one thing, and two thirds of another.

Two Thirds BalanceStylebop
Tamara Mellon

Two Thirds BalanceStylebop

Two Thirds BalanceStylebop
Emilio Pucci

One Sixth

The body is divided in sixths, with one sixth offering drama and impact and the remaining five sixths creating a backdrop for the attention-grabber.

One Sixth BalanceStylebop
Diane von Furstenberg

One Sixth BalanceStylebop
Ralph Lauren

See how this works?

If you think in terms of dividing your body mathematically, whether in half, in thirds, in sixths, etc., it makes creating balance so much easier.

So what are some examples of imbalance?


There is no clear mathematical division here. You see a lot of material, and then your eyes shift from the necklace to the sandals as both compete for attention. It’s kind of chaotic, and you don’t know where to look first.

Michael Michael Kors

The tall, long-legged blonde is certainly beautiful, but the clunky boots keep the dress from visually dividing her in half. If she’d worn skin-toned sandals or pumps, it would look more balanced. It’s not horrible, but you definitely get a, “What’s wrong with this picture?” vibe here, and what’s wrong is that it doesn’t add up.

Free People

Aside from the fact that the delicate crocheted dress and the clunky boots are two completely different moods, this ensemble also misses the mark mathematically. The dress is two thirds, but the boots throw off the remaining one third balance. They also draw attention directly to the feet – which is a real shame, given how pretty she is.

See why these didn’t work? There’s no clear mathematical division. When you think in terms of that, it makes putting together ensembles much easier.

Now let’s go back to the seesaw example. Two kids of the same size balance it out. One big kid and one little kid throws it off. But two little kids and one big kid balances it out again. It’s the same with dress.

There are two types of balance in dress:

  • Formal
  • Informal

Formal balance is symmetrical. If you cut a garment down the middle, each half would be a mirror image of the other. Same collar, same pockets, same color, etc.

Formal BalanceStylebop

Formal balance gives a sense of equilibrium, and makes the wearer seem more stately and dignified. That’s why it’s the first choice for leaders in business, government, and the military.

Informal balance is where one element is offset by another somewhere else on the garment – like the two little kids vs one big kid on the seesaw scenario. The balance is there, but it’s not a mirror image.

Informal BalanceStylebop
Ostwald Helgason

There’s a lot going on here. The print is bold and would be too much if it was a dress instead of a top. The black skirt balances it out. Moreover, the asymmetrical skirt with the hem in the same colors as the top anchors the skirt and draws attention down. You don’t get stuck staring at the top; you look at this outfit from head to foot, yet there is no sense of chaos. Very, very clever.

Here are some other examples of informal balance:

Informal BalanceStylebop

Informal BalanceStylebop
Emilio Pucci

Informal BalanceStylebop
Steffen Schraut

Informal BalanceStylebop
Roland Mouret

Because of its artistic approach, informal balance is typically not worn for business. Save it for casual, cocktail, and evening wear. Moreover, since it requires a certain level of sophistication to pull off, it’s best suited for women over 30.

See how important balance is in dress? So strive for balance when putting together your ensembles, especially if you’re in a leadership position. Give people visual appeal, not chaos. Balance helps you hit that mark.


Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint. Ready to find the clothing styles that suit you best and build a wardrobe of your best looks? Signature Style Blueprint can show you how.


  • LornaMi

    Reply Reply November 9, 2014

    You have imparted so much knowledge here! I understand now why certain looks are, quite simply, wrong to me—especially that suit with the midi skirt and the delicate mini with ankle boots. Thank you!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply November 9, 2014

      Hi Lorna,

      Glad to be of assistance! Once you understand these principles, everything clicks. You get why things don’t work, why they seem “off.” It’s because your mind is trying to find the balance and harmony, and it can’t. We’ll look at more principles of art in future articles, but for now, concentrate on finding balance in your own ensembles. It will make you “easy on the eyes”… 😉

  • Bettye Brown

    Reply Reply November 9, 2014

    Hi Diana,

    I learn so much from you, not only about dressing, but art in general.This one is a keeper.

    Thank you.


    • Diana

      Reply Reply November 10, 2014

      Hi Bettye – you’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Kalpana

    Reply Reply November 10, 2014

    How does a short girl (under 5’4) balance a tunic length top, long at the sides? With capri pants? Narrow jeans? I know this reply would help a lot of women out there! Thanks.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply November 10, 2014

      Hi Kalpana – that’s a tough one for petites. I would recommend Capri pants that cut off just below the knee to give a clear 2/3rd division. Then I’d wear skin-colored shoes to visually lengthen the remaining 1/3rd. Hope that helps.

  • Abbe Pescatore

    Reply Reply November 10, 2014

    Hi Diana,
    As someone who has been in the womens’ fashion business for 41 years, I agree with you on the balance with the exception of the leggy blonde.

    The boots are very light and neutral. Let’s face it, nude boots don’t exist unless you can fine clear ones! I think she looks fabulous and when I look at the screen, I see her in halves. On my screen, the boots don’t look clunky.

    Thanks for your insight,

    • Diana

      Reply Reply November 10, 2014

      Hi Abbe – as I said in the article, it’s not horrible, but the ankle boots just don’t do it for me. I would prefer a different shoe – like a skin tone suede pump, for example.

  • Mary

    Reply Reply November 2, 2016

    This is very valuable advice. I am in the process of reworking my wardrobe for work and need to look sophisticated. Your site is going to be a great help. Thanks.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply November 28, 2016

      You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

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