Fashion industry rant: Being short

Dear fashion industry: I am short.

Yes, short. Not “petite” — I’m also a very average women’s size 10 or 12, not a model-skinny double-zero, and saying it in French doesn’t make me any taller. Not “vertically challenged” — it’s not an obstacle course, and there’s no prize for winning. Just short.

More specifically, I’m 5’1″ inches tall. In Canada, where I live, that puts me at 3 inches shorter than the median height for all adult women, which is 5’4″. That means that half of all women in this country (and in our larger neighbour, the US) are considered “petite” by the fashion industry.

On the other hand, 96% of all models are 5’8″ or taller. 5’9″ is considered the bare minimum to even try to break into modelling. Even “petite” models are 5″7″ or 5’8″.

The fashion industry has decided that short is unattractive, and therefore has relegated us to the status of nonexistent. Most designers, models and fashion industry people will speak of the need for models to have the “ideal” body type — tall, leggy, broad shoulders, flat chests, narrow hips — so that clothing will “hang” better. Which is just coded language to say that they’re not interested in designing for shorter women. Full stop.

Furthermore, all the fashion advice for petite women is about how to dress to flatter your body by creating the illusion of being “longer and leaner”. The corollary to that message is that NOT long and NOT lean equals NOT attractive.

The frustrations of being short

Being short is more problematic than just having to hem pant legs or sleeves. It affects every single body proportion, and therefore every single thing we buy. Jackets and shirts have shoulders that are too wide. The torso lengths are too long, causing the waist to fall at the hip, and unattractive bagging and pulling in all the wrong places. Flared or boot-leg pants see the knee falling somewhere mid-calf. Bra or tank top straps slide off our narrower shoulders. Pants and skirts have too long a rise, so the waist rides up to the chest for a Steve Urkel-like effect. And don’t get me started on dresses, which fit wrong in pretty much every single measurement.

Specialty items are even worse. Ski jackets and pants are miles too long and can’t be altered. Winter coats — a necessity in our cold winters — are nearly impossible to find. Even boots are nearly impossible to find: I have small narrow feet and ankles, but my short legs mean I need wide calf boots with a shorter shaft height. Hah, good luck!

The stuff that’s available in petite sizing is rarely in good quality, natural fabrics. No, us shorties are relegated to weird synthetics like viscose and modal, drapey clingy cuts that flatter nobody, far too many rhinestones, and boxy shapes that my grandmother would’ve been embarrassed to wear. The closer to higher end you go, the further away from petites you get, too; none of the top designers will touch us with a 5 foot pole. So we’re relegated to buying crappy, cheap-looking clothes at much higher prices.

To add to the frustration, I live in Canada. Most retailers with decent selection for petites sizing are American. Sure, some of them sell online, but very few ship to Canada and even fewer offer reasonable shipping rates. Add taxes, duties, shipping delays and the lack of free returns, and you can see how buying something on spec without being able to try it on first isn’t really an option.

There are a handful of local retailers here in Canada that sell petites sizes, but their selection is very limited, their prices are high, their quality is shoddy, and they tend to cater to a much older market. I live in a major fashion city, and yet there are maybe three stores in an entire city of three million people where I can find a handful of items in my size.

Even petites clothes often don’t fit. They’re designed for women who are “5’4″ and under”. That means that often the stuff in the petites section is still too tall for me. In my case, that’s not such a big deal with pants or skirts, as long as I can hem them. But it’s a big problem with jackets, shirts, t-shirts, tops, dresses, and anything that assumes that I have an extra 3″ of torso where I don’t.

Tailoring isn’t a fix

Having a good tailor is a necessity, but not a fix-all. Some alterations are simple and relatively inexpensive to do: Hems, sleeves and straps. That’s it. Most other types of alterations are extremely complicated and not usually worth doing on inexpensive garments, especially those where the fit is off in multiple places. Because clothing designed for a 5’9″+ model and adapted for a 5’6″ woman simply won’t fit me at 5’1″, no matter how much I pay a tailor to make it otherwise.

And the cost is prohibitive: All the sales and discounts and savvy shopping skills in the world won’t matter when you take your $30 blazer to the tailor and have to pay $200 in fixes. Because I’m short, I already pay 3-4 times what a taller woman pays just to clothe myself, and I end up with ill-fitting garments that never make me look as good as she does — not because she’s inherently more attractive than I am, but because her clothes fit her and mine don’t.

A bigger problem

It’s not just about finding clothes that fit and flatter. That’s the least of our problems. Height is associated with attractiveness, status, power, competence and success in our society. Study after study shows that taller women get better jobs, get hired more often, get promoted faster, break glass ceilings in male-dominated fields more easily, and make hundreds of thousands more over the course of a lifetime. When it comes to the business world, short women are quite literally overlooked. (As are short men in the business world. But that’s an issue for another post.)

And because tall people get into power, we subconsciously associate tall people with power, and thus continue to promote tall people into power. Chicken or the egg? I don’t know, but I do know this: Looks matter a lot in the business world, and it’s easier to look confident and put together when your clothes fit. And clothes are made to fit tall people. Is that the only reason why they get ahead? Of course not. Is it a factor? You bet your ass.

Illogical logic

So why doesn’t the fashion industry embrace the petites market and create and market more clothes to short women? After all, we’re half the female population. We’re a huge market with billions in buying power. And we are searching high and low for stuff on which to spend our money — stuff that fits, flatters and makes us feel as sexy and confident and pretty as our taller counterparts. In recent years, the plus sized market has exploded, with designers and retailers everywhere jumping on the bandwagon. (Don’t get me started on calling anything bigger than the average size “plus”, either.) But why haven’t we seen the same growth in petites sizes? Why on earth wouldn’t the industry want to take our money?

See, it comes down to this: The concept of sizing at all is a relatively recent one in our society’s history. It used to be, everyone made their own clothes, or had them made by the local dressmaker, seamstress or tailor. There were no labels, sizes or brands. You sewed the fabric to fit your body, and in the style of the day, and that was that. It wasn’t until our post-industrial age when mass production led to the concept of retailers, catalogue shopping and, hence, sizing.

But that concept didn’t evolve the same way for men and women. When a man buys a suit, he’s expecting to have it custom tailored to him. Even if he buys off the rack, he assumes that basic alterations are included in the price. When a woman buys a suit, on the other hand, she’s expected to fit into one of four or five standard sizes, even though women come in millions of different shapes and sizes.

In other words, when clothes don’t fit a man, the problem is with the clothes. When clothes don’t fit a woman, we’re told the problem is with the woman.

Keeping us dissatisfied

The fashion industry has an inherent interest in keeping us dissatisfied, always believing that we never look good enough. That’s the only way we’ll keep buying more stuff to chase the impossible promise of looking like the model on the cover of Vogue. Men alter their clothes to fit their bodies; women are told we need to alter our bodies to fit our clothes. Every woman has something she is told by society to hate about her body. Too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, breasts too big, breasts too small, too curvy, not curvy enough… We have these messages drilled into us from a young age, and try as we might to instill alternate messages, they get absorbed — to detrimental effect. Eating disorders. Body image disorders. Depression. Suicide.

The entire diet and weight loss industry, the beauty industry, the magazines promising way to “tone your abs” or “get a bikini body”, they all count on us believing that message. And we do. We’ve all fallen for it, hook, line and sinker.

So the fashion industry has set an impossible ideal for women — to be very tall and very thin — and makes clothes to cater to women who fall closest to that ideal. The further away from that ideal we are, the harder the industry needs it to be for us to find clothes that fit and flatter. Simply put, if more stuff were out there to make shorter women feel good about themselves, then we might get too dangerously satisfied and spend less money chasing down that impossible standard.

But while weight is something that is somewhat changeable to a limited degree, height is not. No diet or exercise regime will make me grow taller. And I’m against fat shaming in all its forms, and I think women are beautiful at any weight. But let’s face it: Even if I were to lose weight and drop down a couple of clothing sizes, the fit issues associated with being short wouldn’t go away.

And there’s no way to opt out. Because even though I’m 5’1″, I still need to buy clothes. Not just any clothes, but clothes that are appropriate for my workplace and industry. So even though I spend twice what taller women do to look half as good, I have no choice but to keep doing it. It’s a vicious cycle.

What can the industry do?

The good news is that the market is ripe for a smart, savvy new entrant to tap into this untapped market. It doesn’t inherently cost more to make clothes designed for shorter women. There are just as many of us as there are taller women, and every retailer on the planet makes stuff for them. If someone smart could hit on the right designs, trends and business model, they could own the market. Like I said, we’re desperate to spend our hard-earned money.

What we want:

  • Selection! Being relegated to just a couple of options, while the entire world of fashion is available to taller women, is seriously frustrating.
  • Cuts that fit and flatter women of shorter stature.
  • Quality fabrics and construction comparable to what’s used at similar price points for taller sizes.
  • The recognition that short doesn’t necessarily equal skinny; many of us have hips and curves just like our taller female counterparts. Petite plus *is* a thing; in fact, it’s more than a third of the US market.
  • Collections stocked in stores, so we can try stuff on before we buy just like our taller sisters.
  • Fashionable clothing for women of all ages, not just for older women. There are millions of short young women, too, and we’d rather not dress like our grandmothers (even though we love them).

What we don’t want:

  • Cheap fabrics and construction sold at unreasonably high prices.
  • Expensive shipping charges.
  • Limited size range.
  • Garish prints and bright, loud colours.
  • To ask for petites and be directed to the juniors section.

I dream of the day when every clothing retailer carries a range of sizes proportioned for women of different heights. Or when there are just as many retailers catering to the shorter half of the population as there are to the taller half. But until that day, I suppose I’ll have to keep dreading shopping and suffering through the endless search for stuff that fits.

ETA: This HuffPo video on “short-shaming” addresses this topic directly.

5 thoughts on “Fashion industry rant: Being short

  1. I agree with this! As a 5’2.5″ woman living in Canada, I’ve also had trouble finding good quality petite clothing (not just the regular, crappy stuff in petite sizes). My suggestions: Check out Brooks Brothers’ and Talbots’ well-made petite clothing, which is available in some Canadian cities (these lines aren’t cheap, but they do have great sales!). Also, instead of wasting money on altering a cheap piece of clothing, buy some high quality natural fabric (wool, cotton, silk, etc.) and get pieces custom-made for you by a good dressmaker. Custom-made items aren’t cheap, but they’re worth the money because they tend to last for years and they really do FIT you!

    1. Thanks for the suggestions! I agree 100% with investing in good quality rather than wasting money trying to alter cheap pieces. Unfortunately, more and more, even the expensive brands are producing cheap-quality clothing and fabrics. As for Talbots and Brooks Brothers, I don’t believe we have either of those in Montreal anymore, and anyway, YMMV but I find their styles cater to a much older audience. Custom-made is another route — tricky since there are few tailors who will make clothes for women in Canada. I’ve ordered from a couple of overseas ones with varying levels of success; I’ll do a separate post on that at some point. I also had a bunch of clothes made on a trip to Vietnam some years ago, which I did blog about.

      1. Please give Brooks Brothers and Talbots a try; both of them offer youthful clothing. American designer Zac Posen creates a lot of chic sportswear for Brooks Brothers, and some of his pieces come in petite sizes; there’s nothing old or dowdy about them. Brooks makes gorgeous knee-length pencil skirts from menswear wools in petite sizes, and they hug the body in a very sexy way! You can also find good-quality, flattering basics at Talbots; their Italian wool pants fit beautifully and would look great on women of any age. Both stores have outlets in Toronto, but they probably ship to Montreal. If the shipping costs are too high, buy the clothing on sale. (This is something I’ve done for years and years.) You’re right that more expensive brands are producing cheap-quality clothing from low-quality fabrics, but you should be able to find some good pieces in natural fabrics from Brooks and Talbots if you look hard enough for them. As for custom-made, I found a wonderful dressmaker through a local tailor shop that alters my clothing. (Few tailors made clothing for women in Canada, but quite a few dressmakers do, so consider using a dressmaker rather than a tailor.) She has made great pieces for me that have lasted for almost a decade. You might find a local dressmaker through a tailor shop or a dry cleaning shop. Finding good natural fabrics is challenging, but if you’re interested, I can give you some suggestions for buying them in Toronto (I don’t know of any in the Montreal area), in case you visit our city. I can also suggest a dressmaker. Anyhow, I hope all of this helps.

  2. LoL! I thoroughly enjoy this article. You hit the nail on the head with the clothing and fashion industry NEEDING our dissatisfaction, to keep us buying clothes. I recently came upon a 1950s Home-Ec Textbook for young ladies, and found it….empowering (?!) It is mostly about learning how to sew your own clothes and train your eye to study your own body, so you can tell what kind of fabrics, seams and fit will make it look best. So YOU can give a good impression instead of being just another inadequate body advertising clothes for the designers….

    Anyway, the book – and one other (Esquire’s Black Book of Fashion for men, believe it or not!) has started me on a new lifestyle of changing my dressing strategy. It’s an entire new way of recognizing what I look good in as a 5 ft tall “Curvy” woman. I’ve gotten a very practiced eye! I now do it for other people, as well. I am amazed at how many Fast Fashion (And even more expensive brands) fabrics and seams are really unflattering! Only the thin+long bodies can wear them, because the boxy cuts of the loose items must be “Nipped” and create bulk on not-thin bodies, and unflattering bunch on not-long waists around the belts/ties. And then the stretchy clingy fabric of the tighter items don’t just show highlight the fat we have. They EMPHASIZE any soft flesh and squeeze it, actually CREATING bulge. Only low-body fat, bony bodies can avoid the affect.

    Now, I design some of my own clothes with a tailor. The rest, I try to only buy the seams and necklines that look good on me. But it’s hard! There’s so much out there!

    Let me know if you want the name of the book I found.

    Do keep writing!


    1. Thanks for reading! I think it’s unrealistic for most of us to make all our own clothes in this day and age, though I admire you for trying to learn this skill. It doesn’t change the fact that we need more size options available from major brands and retailers, though.

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