As inclusivity has increasingly become trendy in the fashion world, we’ve seen designers look to diversify the models showing their clothes. The runway has become more inclusive over the past number of years, featuring plus-sized models, disabled and differently-abled models, more models of different ethnic backgrounds, transgender models, senior citizen models… but the one thing they have in common is that they are all over 5’9″. Even an industry “petite” model will be 5’7″ and up.
Designers argue that it’s because their designs ‘hang’ better on taller models. But that’s backwards thinking. If they are designing for tall women only, then of course only tall women will be able to pull off their designs. What they’re really saying is, they think short is ugly, and they don’t want to design for short women because they’re prejudiced against them. There’s a long-standing theory that fashion designers are designing clothes for more masculine-looking women: Tall, broad shoulders, small hips, small bust. Not to denigrate the femininity of women who look like that — we’re all legit, regardless of body type — but I can’t help but think it’s actually a sign of misogyny to demand that women conform to these rigid and (for most of us) unrealistic standards.
The last remaining acceptable prejudice?
Let me be clear: Heightism is the last remaining acceptable prejudice in the fashion industry. Nobody would dream of fat-shaming women in public anymore without getting a barrage of hate mail. Racism still exists in the fashion industry, but not openly. Ageism, ableism and other forms of prejudice are all slowly being recognized as unacceptable as well. But it’s still considered not only okay, but practically carved in stone, to tell a woman that she’s too short to model.
And in the process, we’re telling one half of all women that they’re too short for fashion. That fashion is for tall girls, not for them. That they can’t participate.
Of course, this is nonsense. The number of celebrity fashionistas who are 5’3″ and under in Hollywood alone serve as proof against that concept. Fashion is for everyone. It’s just not showcased that way. And when we go out and buy the clothes that we see on the runways, we generally find that they don’t fit, flatter or suit our bodies … because they weren’t designed for us.
Even petite labels and designers show their clothes on standard-height tall models. You can’t browse the catalogue or website of a single petite brand today (except for a couple of pioneer niche brands) and actually see the clothing displayed on petite bodies. Which makes it really frustrating to shop. A few designers went out looking for petite models to display their designs, only to be told — snidely — that such a thing does not exist.
Actually, there are petite models… sort of.
Of course, there are petite models. Not many, but they exist. A 2017 Mic article entitled The Rise of the Very Short Model examined a few petite models who were starting to get noticed in the fashion world at the time:
But over the past few months, more and more models who are Kate Moss’ height and shorter have started breaking into the industry. There’s Amina Blue, who’s walked for Kanye West’s Yeezy every single season, who stands at 5’1”. There’s Lily-Rose Depp, who’s walked for Chanel, who’s 5’3”. There’s Tess Holliday, who recently made her NYFW runway debut at an Ashley Nell Tipton show, who’s also 5’3”.
Mic concluded that this very odd (for fashion) phenomenon was being driven by the rise of Instagram and the desire of women to see themselves represented. And then went on to quote fashion gatekeepers about why this is a negative:
“The big barrier that’s been broken down with fashion is that real people have now taken over,” [casting director James] Scully said. “Because there are no gatekeepers. Fashion’s not meant to be egalitarian, though. If there’s nothing to aspire to, then what’s the point of having it? People want experiences. Fashion was never meant to have this kind of all-over-the-world-ness.”
In other words, according to Scully, height is something to aspire to. Shortness is a bad thing and women shouldn’t / couldn’t possibly aspire to a beauty ideal featuring women of shorter-than-average height. The disdain and prejudice drips with every single word of that cringeworthy attitude. And he’s certainly not the only one.
It’s telling that on the hit TV show Project Runway, the “real woman” challenge is always met with sneering by the competitors. “Ew,” they say. “We have to design for a short woman?” This attitude starts early, in design school, and is rampant all the way through the industry, from judges to commentators to style icons — many of whom are petite women themselves. When Tyra Banks hosted a “petites” season of America’s Next Top Model in 2009, the winner was 5’7″ Nicole Fox. Yes, really.
When you consider that the average woman in North America is 5’4″, having a 5’7″ winner of a “petites” modelling season is very telling.
Realistically, you can’t get a job as a runway model if you’re under 5’9″. Even catalogue modelling is largely inaccessible to women under 5’7″ unless you’re doing hand, foot or other modelling that doesn’t show your, presumably deformed, height disadvantage. The modelling industry says it’s because nobody would book petite models. The industry says it’s because none are available. And round and round we go. The few companies trying to change that, like Bella Petite, are very likely just scamming the women they claim to represent.
The brands driving change
So how do we change it? By speaking up and speaking out, just like with any other form of prejudice. And by supporting the brands who are trying to pioneer change.
Some brands and designers, like Stature and Petite Studio, are trying to break ground by showing their petite clothes on petite models. The former showcases its clothes on a diverse variety of petite models, each of whom have their own website profiles showcasing their measurements as well as their personalities.
Meanwhile, the latter even launched a petite model search in 2018 to find the new face of its campaign — something it wouldn’t have had to do if petite models were mainstream and easy to find:
A handful of mainstream and lower-priced brands, such as ASOS, have started to follow suit, showing their petite clothes on actual petite models (whose heights are helpfully listed on their website), though they continue to employ only tall models to display their runway collections.
For now, the brands actually showcasing petite clothes on petite models are few and far between. Most brands that sell petites continue to show them on straight-sized (i.e. tall) models, making it extremely difficult for petite shoppers to see what they’d look like on our bodies. If they’re successful, maybe someone else will do it, and a few more times until it becomes more accepted.
Until then, this is something that we should be talking about. Because runway models aren’t representative of most women, sure. But they’re representative of the beauty ideal that little girls grow up internalizing. We’re all influenced by the media. And when every message out there tells us that you have to be tall to be beautiful, it’s hard to convince girls otherwise.