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by David Isle


Symmetry is often suggested as a cardinal virtue of aesthetics. Since symmetry is very unlikely to occur at random, its presence suggests skillful execution of a design. When something is asymmetric, it might be unclear if this is a design choice or a failed attempt at symmetry. You might, for instance, be more sure of the structural integrity of a symmetric building than an asymmetric one. Likewise, people judge symmetrical faces to be more attractive, perhaps because they signal genetic fitness.

The canon of Western art shows a reverence for symmetry, often with geometric precision.  Consider Masaccio's Holy Trinity, one of the first Renaissance paintings.

The composition has Christ a dead center, surrounded evenly by attendants and architecture. The use of perspective gives the painting depth that its predecessors lacked. But there is little energy or dynamism in the image, partly because if anyone moves, the tableau is ruined. Again, symmetry is almost never random. The artist has carefully placed his actors and his set in this position, where they must remain, like a cake too perfect to cut.

Though Western art continued to develop in many directions over the centuries that followed Masaccio, perspective and symmetrical composition maintained their hegemony until the arrival of Japanese art in the late 19th century. Japanese art does not employ perspective and therefore seems flat. But it achieves movement through careful asymmetry (a cousin of “studied nonchalance”, the original aim of sprezzatura). Consider how much would be lost if the Great Wave were in the middle of the frame rather than off to the side.

Or contrast the gardens at Versailles, a testament to man's taming of nature and the victory of order over chaos:

with the idealization and stylization of the natural world in a Japanese garden:

Clothing follows a similar logic. In the traditional suit-and-tie dress of the Western male, symmetry dominates. This evenness projects control and competence. Only the occasional pocket square or boutonniere, or the slight skew of a four-in-hand tie knot, save the suit-and-tie from a robotic uniformity, and for this they are to be commended. More serious deviations look like silly mistakes.

Outside of the order of suit-and-tie, a little more chaos need not suggest incompetence. The more radical asymmetries, like the zipper shown above, generate energy and tension. Perhaps enough to ruffle a few pocket squares.