The Height of Fashion

Does being petite mean you get shortchanged by the style world?

March 2, 2012

Half-pint. Vertically challenged. Shorty. Ever the runt of the room, I’ve heard all the nicknames. My college roommate towered a full head above me — fighting with her for mirror time was a nonissue. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, my height has never alienated me from society in any meaningful way (yes, I can ride all the roller coasters, no matter what the boys in junior high said). But with fashion, I’ve drawn the short straw.

“Choice is very limited in petite sizes,” agrees Kelly Tucker, the 4-foot-11-inch style siren/blogger behind Alterations Needed. “There aren’t many brands and designers producing petites. And even fewer are fashion-forward or sell lines with quality tailoring.” For those of us tormented by (not-so) petite shopping demons, a casual stroll through a mall can be enough to stir the ghosts of fashion failures past.

Flipping through a rack of skinny jeans, suddenly I’m in fifth grade, my well-meaning but clueless dad coaching me on pants fit — “Baggier is better!” “Leave a few inches to grow!” — while standing by in his “relaxed fit” faded Lees. That episode resulted in a mess of oversize denim that, in comparison, made the era’s grungesters look sleek. It also ushered me into my tween years wearing stirrup jeans leggings.

Even the ghosts of other petites’ fashion foibles haunt me. I pause at a display of floor-length frocks — or a rack of flowing maxi dresses — and I’m wormholed back to a Chicago dressing room, my similarly proportion-shrunk mom desperately searching the paltry petite options for a gown to wear to my wedding. (After days of failure, her criteria became less picky: any dress within reach of a tailor’s magic.)

Mom isn’t alone in her woes, says D.C. stylist Kaarin Moore. “Petite sizing isn’t just about getting a size small. Just because something is smaller doesn’t mean the cut will be correct.”

I can deal with the flashbacks; the real problem is the grip they still hold on my wardrobe. Ever since my nightmare with Dad, my dalliances with denim have been fraught with poor decisions. I flirted with flares, cutting my losses far too late (alas, you just can’t hem a bell-bottom). Skinnies fare better, but the slim-cut styles always seem extra-long, as if they were simply yanked like a rubber band on the assembly line.

I try not to seem bitter, but it’s hard when I hear about the trousers-shopping plight of Gisele-like gazelles with legs that start higher than my shoulders.

(Maybe Gisele and I both struggle with hems, but at the end of the day, she’s a model raking in millions. I’m just a girl without proper pants, trying to learn to sew to save money on tailoring.)

I’ve picked up a few tricks, both obvious (heels, heels, more heels) and a bit more clever (nude pumps with bare legs). V-necks are short gals’ best friend; cropped pants are our foes. Crowding my closet: dresses that hit at or just above the knee, which seems to best flatter my frame.

But one of the tallest hurdles facing petite women is, simply, being taken seriously. In D.C., where everything is a potential power grab, that’s worthy motivation to embrace the hand (and legs) I was dealt. “Because short height is often related to being young, I love petite women in ‘power clothing,’” Tucker says. “People are surprised by the strong attitude given off by a short woman in sharp clothing. It’s not what they expect.”

A Little Blog Love

On her blog, Alterations Needed, Kelly Tucker shows and tells petites how to dress for their height. Her tricks: Push up the too-long sleeves of a blazer, get to know your tailor, and keep statement jewelry smallish in size.

The Short List

In addition to department stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, many major retailers offer a robust petite selection. Below are some of our favorites.

Loft: Don’t let the name fool you: Nearly every regular-sized style is available in smaller varieties for those closer to the ground.

Gap: Higher armholes, shorter sleeves and raised knee positions mean everyday basics are within reach.

Talbots: With sizes ranging from 0P to 16P, petites can get a leg up on business-wear and tailor-made classics.

Topshop.com: This U.K. powerhouse makes more than 200 fashion-forward pieces available to the USA.

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Fiona Zublin · March 2, 2012