London - For years mothers have told their daughters that horizontal stripes do the female figure no favours and that vertical ones are more flattering. As a result, many women have spent their lives avoiding horizontal hoops for fear of looking fat.
So when Dr Peter Thompson, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of York, announced last year that horizontal stripes actually make you look thinner, many breathed a collective sigh of relief.
After all, horizontal stripes have become a perennial favourite in fashion collections. This season, designers including J. Crew, Juicy Couture and Stella McCartney are showcasing stripes, while navy-and-white striped Breton tops are ubiquitous in High Street stores such as Zara and Gap.
Yet, just as we are poised to embrace nautical chic, free from the fear it could make us look like a ship in full sail, along comes Val Watham, winner of the BBC’s Amateur Scientist of the Year award, announcing that Mom was right all along: horizontal stripes do make you look fat.
She has based her findings on an experiment in which hundreds of people gave their verdicts on women wearing different outfits.
So what is the truth about stripes? The debate dates back to the 19th century, when German doctor and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz showed that a square made of horizontal stripes appeared to be taller and narrower than an identical square of vertical stripes.
He used this information to note, in his 1867 Handbook of Physiological Optics, that “ladies’ frocks with cross stripes on them make the figure look taller”.
However, somewhere down the line, his message got confused, and generations of women decided that horizontal stripes made them look fat. That was the received wisdom until last year, when Dr Thompson decided to see who was right - the clothes-buying public or Dr vVn Helmholtz.
Dr Thompson showed people pairs of drawings. Each set showed line drawings of identical women, one wearing horizontal stripes, the other wearing vertical ones. Participants were asked to judge which of the women was fatter.
The result? The figure in horizontal stripes was perceived as thinner than the one in vertical stripes. So Dr Thompson drew the conclusion that horizontal ones make you look thinner, not fatter.
His theory was that when the eye looks at vertical stripes on a waistline, it has to take in the constant contrast of black to white to black, and so on, and all this extra thinking fools the brain into believing that the area is bigger than it actually is.
But when the stripes run from left to right, there’s a single unbroken line - so no confusion for the brain to sort out and no extra inches.
However, all horizontal stripes are not created equal. It was found that narrow black stripes on a white background were most flattering - ideally when there was about 10 percent black to 90 percent white.
Dr Thompson then went on to perform another set of experiments to try to show that his stripes’ theory held true on 3D objects as well. He took cylinders and covered them with horizontal or vertical lines and asked people to decide which looked wider. Again, the majority decided that the cylinders with the horizontal lines looked narrower. Conclusive proof, surely, that Dr von Helmholtz was right and women were wrong - sailor stripes ahoy! Or not...
Like a lot of women who’ve spent years agonising over what they look like, amateur scientist Val Watham, 53, is sceptical about Dr Thompson’s findings.
“Using line drawings filled in with flat stripes doesn’t look like real people wearing real clothes,” she argues.
Similarly, cylinders with lines on them don’t look an awful lot like people in clothes, either.
So Val proposed a more realistic experiment, which involved showing people videos of different-sized models wearing identical clothes, made either of vertically striped, horizontally striped or plain black material.
More than 500 people were asked to study the videos of the models wearing all three outfits, and the results showed that vertical stripes made people look taller, while horizontal stripes made them appear wider.
But Liz Thody, fashion director at Easy Living magazine, thinks that the scientists have made it all too simplistic. She believes clothes are about more than just the pattern on the material, and points out that the cut of a garment and the shape of the individual have a huge impact on how flattering an item of clothing is.
“I have friends of all shapes and sizes who wear horizontal stripes and look good in them,” she says. “So much of this debate comes down to the style of the clothes and the body they are on.
“For example, vertical candy stripes can look lovely on a curvaceous woman in a Fifties Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor way, while a more fitted garment with vertical stripes will simply distort those lines and look odd.
“In the same way, a boxy Breton top flatters many women.”
Fashion commentator Mimi Spencer disagrees, saying that “stripes of any persuasion can be challenging. Though chic, they distort in a very obvious way when navigating a bulge, which is a bit like drawing an arrow on your belly and asking people to throw commiserative glances.”
Perhaps we’re better off skipping the stripes altogether. After all, Val’s experiment showed that the most flattering outfits of all were entirely black - and that’s one fact most fashion fans can agree on. - Daily Mail