I'm part of a huge demographic that retailers largely ignore -- here's why it's so frustrating

Kim Kardashian Kendall and Kylie Jenner MTV Awards 2014Christopher Polk/Getty ImagesKim Kardashian is also petite — especially standing next to her half-sisters.

There are only a few times when I’m reminded how short I am: when I’m riding the subway and someone pushes right into me because I’m not in his peripheral vision, when I can’t reach my kitchen cabinets and hop onto the counter, and when I’m shopping.

I’ve tried to be dexterous in my attempts to find clothes. (For the record, I’m 4’11”.)

When I was in high school and college, I admit, I frequently shopped in the kids’ section. If you look like a stunted beanpole — and in college, I did — some of this shapeless garb is fine. It’s pretty impressive to see the selection that’s available for (wealthy, stylish) kids these days. I was able to wear a lot of designer apparel that had cheaper prices than their adult counterparts for obvious reasons: kids clothes take less fabric to make. (To this day, I still wear kids’ flat boots; they’re markedly cheaper than their adult counterparts and they fit; I’m not going to wear the same Frye boots in two sizes too big.)

But there comes a point in an adult woman’s life where she doesn’t want to shop in the kids’ section anymore; she wants to wear apparel for women because she is, after all, a bona fide woman. Yet, she shows up to the mall to go shopping and while the adult small dresses zip up just fine, they hug in all the wrong places and drag on the ground, practically begging to get ruined by filthy swamp city she lives in. Back to the kids’ section and to hiding in shapeless frocks it is.

It’s frustrating. How do you shop for clothes and not look like a child in children’s clothing — or a child playing dess up in her mother’s closet?

There are, of course, retailers that do cater to petite women — although there’s a blatant shortage — pun not intended. Walk into Ann Taylor, Loft (where I buy my jeans), J. Crew, Banana Republic, or a department store, and you’ll see selections of petite clothing, often relegated to a small corner with an odd amalgam of apparel, as though the merchandise team is wondering, “who is this petite woman? Is she a mother? Is she frumpy? Is she a decaying 90-year-old? Is she youthful and feisty? Is she too young to show off her curves? Is she a virgin?” The answer   — from a petite woman — is that she is none of the above, and she is all of the above. The petite woman is just like the regular-sized customer…only shorter.

The obvious issue is how it is apparent that retailers seem confused as to how to deal with short women. Some, like Topshop and Anthropologie, are beginning to hop and board and realise that short women like to look good, too, but the disparity of options and the apparent lack of concern for the petite shopper is notable.

But the reason why there are likely fewer petite options — and that not all stores offer apparel for smaller-framed women — is potentially one of the reasons why some stores do not offer plus size fashion: not that the demographic causes disdain, but because it requires a different design pattern.

As blogger TanyaTheAnonymousModel wrote on Jezebel:

“For a dress to look the same on a petite woman, a standard size woman and a plus woman — for the hem to hit at the same place on each woman’s leg, for the waist to sit at the appropriate height, for the neckline to flatter but not overexpose, for the pockets to be useful, easily reached, and neither too small nor too big — requires, in effect, three totally different paper patterns, each with a separate, and expensive, development process.”

And what if designers just don’t know how to design petite clothing at all? After all, many don’t know how to design plus size apparel.

In fact, this is such an identifiable problem for curvy women, that plus size model Emme told Business Insider this past summer that the reason she started Fashion Without Limits, a design program at Syracuse University, was in order to teach students who otherwise wouldn’t learn how to design for larger bodies how to do so.

The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City offers a continuing education course in image consulting, lumping petite bodies and plus size bodies together as “special size” customers — noting that they make up about a tremendous amount of the population. The course description reads as follows:

“Over 70 million U.S. women fall into the special size category, that 50 % of the population is actually under 5’4″, and 65 million women are considered plus size. Designers, patternmakers, retailers, stylists, and image consultants, and wardrobe technicians can all benefit from this in-depth workshop that demystifies the special size business potential. Learn the facts behind the figures with practical information for fulfilling the expectations of the special size customer with proper fit, fashion, and service. Highly recommended for anyone looking to increase sales and services. Interact with our two industry experts as they each tackle the dilemmas facing both the petite and plus-size customer and give concrete directions for satisfying their shopping needs and fashion passions.”

An undergraduate course “sketching for fashion designers” mentions that “Large, half-size, petite, and junior-size figures are featured to study proportions used in the industry” — so obviously, petites aren’t entirely ignored in design school, they’re just aren’t given equal attention. And why should they? They’re generally not on runways; runways are about aspiration, and who aspires to be 5’2”?

Some retailers are trying to find solutions without having to churn out new design patterns.

Madewell, for instance, doesn’t offer petite apparel like its sister brand, J. Crew, does. However, Madewell offers complimentary hemming for jeans, which is a start. (J. Crew declined to comment for this story, although the retailer pointed me to the petites section on the website.) And there’s always the local tailor.

But hemming doesn’t account for inseams and mismatched proportions, or the emotional component to it, which is that many women want to feel good, not just simply covered, in clothing — and that they don’t want to feel any less attractive than their taller counterparts. 

However, unlike the much ballyhooed — and similarly ignored — plus size sector, there’s not too much of a battle cry for a solution for petite women.

Anthropologie petitesAnthropologieA jumpsuit from Anthropologie’s petite section.

Petite women have not been celebrated loudly as equals. They have not been given body-positive model icons to speak on their behalf, although we do have Kelly Ripa, Snooki, and Kim Kardashian in our corner. There has not been a call to action. There hasn’t been any real vocal repugnance, but instead, there’s been a silence and a void, which is too to telling. Petite women have been pushed aside, not permitted to speak — much like the children for which many try not to be mistaken.

But can you imagine a campaign full of sub-5’4” women (starring Kelly Ripa, Snooki, and Kim Kardashian, why not!) with women shouting, “Short people are people, too! LOOK AT US!” It brings to mind a tantrum that a child might throw — “notice me, I’m a grownup!” — which is everything short people are trying to avoid. We’re just small adults, not walking Peter Pan complexes.

The answer then, appears to be consistent. Shop online, where there are more options, and take a gamble on if your clothes will fit properly. Hem your jeans. Wear heels. Or don’t. Break the rules fashion magazines tell you you should strictly abide by (you can wear a maxi skirt; most skirts are maxi skirts, anyway!). Walk with confidence — something that fashion can aid, but cannot provide for you. That’s at least, what I’ve tried — until I have that fateful interaction with a tailor that makes my apparel fit every inch of my body for no cost. Until then, I’ve heard my wedding dress alterations are going to cost a fortune. 

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