Do designers give petite women short shrift?

Some petite women think designers often look down at them

Special to The Washington PostMarch 15, 2012 

Half-pint. Vertically challenged. Shorty. Ever the runt of the room, I’ve heard all the nicknames. At 5 feet 3, 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 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 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. (Finally her criteria became less picky: any dress within reach of a tailor’s magic.)

Mom isn’t alone in her woes, says Washington 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.”

My fashion flashbacks still hold a grip 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. Shoes and tights of the same color add up to a continual lengthening line. Dresses that hit at or just above the knee seem to best flatter my frame. Long earrings create the illusion of height.

On her Alterations Needed blog, Tucker has her own suggestions: Push up the too-long sleeves of a blazer, get to know your tailor, and keep statement jewelry smallish in size.

But one of the tallest hurdles facing petite women is, simply, being taken seriously. “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.”

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