Much Like Being Plus Size, Petite Folks Can't Find Quality Clothes, Not For Lack of Trying
On Tuesday, Orange is the New Black actress Dascha Polanco spoke out about the difficulty of finding a good designer dress as a size 10. Just days earlier, the hashtag #WeWearWhatWeWant, which attempts to demolish people's tropes about plus-size women and what they can wear went viral. And a few days before that, Melissa McCarthy went on the record to talk about why she hates "rules" regarding plus-size clothing.
At this point, conversations around body diversity and fashion are nearly normalized, with plus-size women leading the discussion — and there's good reason for that. As McCarthy and actress Rebel Wilson have both talked about, the plus-size section can be annoying because the clothes are all shoved in one corner, or the clothes are highly unstylish. Indeed, those who wear plus-size clothing are wholly underserved by the fashion industry. But there's also another sector of people who have their gripes: petites.
Petites, who are typically about 5'3" or shorter, often have to push up their sleeves, roll up their pants and deal with shirts that drape down to their thighs. Petites can be any size from a 0 to a 10 to a 14 or larger, except short, and the fashion industry barely takes them into account: Over the past 10 years, petite sections across the country have actually been disappearing.
So, much like being a size 12 or larger, being short and finding good clothes isn't easy. And like plus-size sections, petite sections (if they exist at all) are also shoved away in the corner of a store, and the clothes seemed to be crafted from scraps. But why? Why, in 2016, a time in which nontraditional bodies are more and more celebrated, are we still having this conversation?
To find an answer, compare the history of the plus-size section to the petite.
A bit of history: Plus-size fashion was born in the early 1900s thanks to Lane Bryant, which sold clothes for "stout women" with bust measurements from 36 inches to 56 inches. Gradually, the section became more popular, which could very well have to do with the average size of an American woman getting larger. The market and interest in plus-size women then only grew, and later in the 20th century led to retailers like Macy's and JCPenney creating plus-size sections of their own. Currently, the industry itself is currently worth $17 billion.
Meanwhile, the average height of an American woman has remained relatively stagnant over the last hundred years, increasing by only an inch from 5'3" in 1912 to 5'4" in 2012. Although retailers had been obsessed with tall, leggy women up until the mid-20th century, they eventually learned — with some department stores creating sections called "junior petites" directed toward young women.
According to the New York Times, the petite section finally started to take off with more mainstream retailers around the 1980s, "when a handful of major apparel labels like Liz Claiborne and Adrienne Vittadini, having discovered that millions of smaller women did not fit into their regular clothing lines, agreed to produce petite sizes."
From there, petite clothes would come with a tag that read the size, and then "P," and would be cut specifically for a smaller woman, with the sleeves raised and the pants a bit shorter. It became, as the Times reported in 2006, a "craze," with women relieved to be able to one-stop shopping on clothes they didn't have to tailor. Although the garments weren't always fashionable, often taking on a certain geriatric flair, women were still excited to find clothes that fit.
In 2005, according to the Times, sales of petite clothing reached $10 billion, but then took a massive hit. Major retailers that had once embraced petites started to ditch them. "The shrinking sales floor space for petite sizes — which has not been duplicated in the plus-size department — has already claimed several casualties on Seventh Avenue," the Times reported.
In a matter of months, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales all cut their sections significantly in 2006, telling women that they'd be better off tailoring clothes they liked themselves, rather than dealing with what they offered. To them, despite the fact that sales had been up for years before, it just wasn't financially worth it.
So, what gives? Why did petites suddenly become extinct? Turns out, much like plus-size clothing, petites had an image problem.
Dissecting the image problem: In the fashion world, plus-size people have long been stereotyped as unhealthy, poor and unconcerned with fashion. Petite people, on the other hand, have been perceived as being super old.
That's the assumption that's influenced how petite clothes look, and what's to blame for the section's disappearance from stores. Petite clothing has had a reputation for being frumpy, so the word "petite" became synonymous with "women above a certain age," and so women started veering away from it.
"It's a segment of the population that these stores don't care to maintain," Andrew V. Jassin, the managing director of a fashion consulting firm, told the Times. "It's a snobbish appeal. The retailers want to keep the contemporary women — and she does not want to be called petite."
It's a problem that's plagued the plus-size community for years. They've long been given frumpy, ill-fitting, downright ugly clothes, so the plus-size section now has a stigma. But unlike petite women, plus-size women have begun to fight back.
Who will be our hero? For the plus-size movement, there are people like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, who gladly champion their cause for the betterment of their plus-size sisters. But as for petites — although there are shorter women in the spotlight, from Kim Kardashian (5'3") to Eva Longoria (5'2") to Dolly Parton (5'0") to Snooki (4'8") — they don't talk about how hard it is to find clothes that fit.
Yet despite petite-size women lacking a champion, there are a select few younger brands attempting to demolish the idea that the petite section is for PTA members and grandmas only. (See: Talbots.)
Petites are currently available in not-so-cheap stores marketed toward young professional women — stores like Anthropologie, TopShop, J.Crew, Ann Taylor Loft, The Limited and Banana Republic. For curvier petite women, there's Myrda J, which is an online store specializing in clothes for women who are shorter and up to a 3XL.
Right now, some of the more affordable options are at Old Navy and ASOS, which both offer petite clothing online only. Similarly, plus-size clothing has been available online only, and criticized for it — however, by being internet-only, places like Old Navy and ASOS can supply a wide range of petite clothing to their customers without having to worry about retail space.
"For most retailers, the issue is generally space in store. As we are online, we can offer a comprehensive collection for the petite customer," an ASOS representative said in an interview. "I think it has been slightly overlooked. There is a lack of appreciation. The petites customer needs specialist fits rather than things just being altered ... it's more than just taking a hem up."
And other than the issue of dressing small women, there's also the issue of dressing small men, who are perhaps the most underserved people within petites. So far, the company Silas Jackson, which specializes in shirts for men who are 5'8" or under, is one of the first companies to specifically dress this group of people's needs, ensuring that men of smaller stature have access to clothes that fit them.
"I think part of it is stigma and part of it just might be that men are so used to dealing with what's just available," Ben Robbins, the founder of Silas Jackson, said in an interview. "It's possible that men are really just a bit less fashion conscious, but if there's another option out there, we should know to embrace it."
How petites can thrive again: Although petites took a hit 10 years ago, there are glimmers of hope. According to our interview with ASOS, petites is still a highly profitable section, and given that there aren't many quality and easily accessible petite sections out there, it seems like it's a market begging to be invested in.
In many ways, the petite section is in a situation similar to where plus-size clothing was 10 years ago. There are stores that specialize in it, but it's not mainstream. Plus, the petite clothes themselves are still due for an improvement, as is the image of a petite woman.
So if the petite section wants to continue to mirror the plus-size section's comeback, it looks like it really just needs a hero. We're looking at you, Kim.