The disappearing petites section
Of all the frustrations I have with being short in a tall person’s world, clothes shopping is probably the worst one.
With so many retailers getting rid of their petites sections in recent years, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s harder than ever for us shorter women to find clothes that fit. Even though half of all North American adult women are 5’4″ and under, most major department stores and retailers have cut back or cut out their petites selections entirely, simply telling women to make the best of clothing that’s cut all wrong for us. In short, they decided that petite isn’t profitable, so they just gave up entirely.
Smaller market, fewer choices
Being petite is frustrating enough. But try being petite and Canadian, and options for shopping drop to basically zero.
Canada has a market about 10% of the size of the US. Our brands and retailers simply can’t afford to make niche products profitable. So they stock for the middle 70%, and anyone falling outside the centre of that bell curve is basically shit outta luck.
See, Canadian brands and retailers have a tough enough time competing with US or European brands to begin with, even in standard sizes, because of lower volume and higher production costs. To them, “petite” is just a market that isn’t worth much. The demand is fairly low here; quite a few petite women who are on the taller side of petites, or who have a longer torso vs. inseam, can often get away with wearing regular sized clothes and just having them hemmed. Some shorter petite women have broader shoulders and narrower hips, too, which seems to allow them to wear size XXS or 00 in regular brands. So the true percentage of women who, like me, rely pretty much entirely on petites because we simply can’t make regular sizes work for us, is quite a bit smaller.
By last count, there were only three Canadian-owned retailers in the entire province of Quebec that cater to petites. Of them, two (Cazza Petites and Laura Petites) deal exclusively in clothing targeting the 70-and-older set, and one is a department store (The Bay) with dwindling and anemic offerings for petites. There are a couple of US chain stores based here, like Banana Republic, which have some petite items. But that’s it.
Canadian retailers not filling the need
A report in NPD about four years ago estimated that there are ten million women in Canada who can’t buy clothes off the rack.
Approximately 10 million women in Canada are having a hard time buying clothes off the rack. According to the Canadian Women’s Special Sizes Report from leading global information company The NPD Group, more than half of Canadian women feel they require “special size” clothing (i.e. plus/tall/petite/junior, or a combination of these). However, 63 per cent of this group is having trouble finding styles that match their figures. As a result, roughly two in five special-size shoppers are taking their business elsewhere, heading to the U.S. for clothing options they are not getting at home.
Cross-border shopping in the US is my lifeline, but even that is a pain. It used to be easier when US retailers carried petites in store. But now that most stores in the US have moved their petite selection to online only, it’s much harder, since many of those stores won’t ship to Canada so I can’t order online from them even if I wanted to. A few allow me to ship to a US border post office box, but many others won’t even accept Canadian billing addresses / credit cards. Plus, that requires me to drive across the border to get stuff, and once I get done paying taxes, duties and exchange rate, it costs a fortune.
An industry-created problem
The other problem is one that the industry created itself: Dowdy, matronly offerings in the petites section for years gave the term “petite” a reputation for having ugly stuff. So younger women, even shorter younger women, don’t want to shop there. Therefore designers and companies stopped making as much stuff, and relegated it to smaller and less advertised sections. And as the selection got worse and the designs got uglier, fewer people shopped there, creating a circular chicken-or-egg situation.
Retailers like to argue that Canadian women are getting taller, and that’s why petite clothing is targeted only to the very oldest market segments. But that argument doesn’t really hold water. In 100 years, we’ve gotten a little taller, but not by much: Today, Canadian women average 5’4″, compared to 5’2″ a hundred years ago. And yet, clothing is fit to models who are almost exclusively taller than 5’7″.
That feeling of despair
At this point, I have to admit, I have given up. Entirely, completely. I am done. I broke down in tears when I learned that my last local hope for petites clothing had recently decided to “standardize” their sizes and eliminate their petites altogether. I may have yelled at the salesgirl. I was just so frustrated and angry.
There are literally zero — and I do mean zero — stores where I can buy clothes anymore. Whatever I own is going to have to last me the rest of my life, I guess. Because there’s nowhere left to shop.