When it comes to fashion or style, it seems like we women have forever been trying to fit ourselves into little boxes. Are we apples or pears? Are we summers or winters? Are we adventurous or conservative? Kibbe is seemingly the latest (not really; it’s from the 80s) craze along these lines.
I’ve had a number of requests from readers for a post on Kibbe types for petites. So, despite my misgivings, here goes.
What is Kibbe?
Kibbe body types were developed by image consultant David Kibbe in the late 1980s, published in his book Metamorphosis, and then co-opted by self-described typologists and stylists for years to come. It seeks to define people as falling into one of 5 beauty categories, based on responses to a questionnaire about your facial features, bone structure, body type, and presentation.
The method uses the concepts of “yin” and “yang” to describe features that it determines are either more traditionally feminine or masculine. For instance, it defines sharp angles, boldness, a strong jaw and prominent features as masculine “yang” features. In contrast, roundness, softness and curves as feminine, or “yin” features.
Using that, it seeks to define you into one of 5 types, which each further break down into subtypes leading to 13 overall Kibbe types:
- Dramatic is all yang — hard angles (think Tilda Swinton)
- Natural is more yang with some yin (think Sandra Bullock)
- Classic is balanced, with most features neither yin nor yang (think Grace Kelly)
- Gamine is a study in contrasts — some yin and some yang features (think Audrey Tautou)
- Romantic is all yin – – soft curves (think Marilyn Monroe)
And within that, each type can “lean” more towards yin or yang, or be a pure type in the middle, other than the two extremes of Dramatic and Romantic. That gives us 13 types in total.
Pros and cons of Kibbe
Let me say this right off the bat: I don’t think that the Kibbe system is particularly scientific. The original book, written in the 80s, was full of outdated fashion advice (big shoulder pads, anyone?) and pretty cringeworthy gender stereotypes. The online tests that are meant to help you determine your body type are full of arbitrary language and scoring systems that don’t make a whole lot of sense. David Kibbe himself has actually gone back on much of what he wrote in his book, claiming it’s no longer possible to type someone any other way than by meeting him in person, making this whole business sound like an overhyped marketing campaign for his stylist services than anything else.
I also don’t find it to be all that useful, in general. Kibbe typology uses flowery and over-the-top language to type people into these ethereal, hard-to-define categories. And then it gives a lot of “rules” that are meant to be broken for each type. Overall, I’d say Kibbe is about as useful as a horoscope, that is to say, not terribly.
But, it’s had a resurgence of attention lately for some reason, perhaps driven by social media. Blogs, forums and video series have all cropped up attempting to explain the methodology and classify people, often in exchange for a fee. It’s like the 2019 version of getting your colours done. (Remember the “Colour Me Beautiful” craze from the 80s? where everyone wanted to know if they were a summer or a fall? Yeah, it’s kinda like that.)
For a pretty decently clear introduction to Kibbe types from someone who is as much of a skeptic as I am, check out Justine Leconte’s video here:
This advantage, however, makes Kibbe types incredibly hard to define. Measuring your waist or your hips results in a number. That number is an objective fact. In contrast, your “essence” is an entirely subjective concept, one that can completely change depending on your mood or how people relate to you. So even figuring out which of the thirteen types you fall into can be incredibly challenging.
However, once you do, I think there is indeed something to be said for the way the Kibbe system focuses on playing up your strengths, rather than other style advice based on body shape that tends to focus on balancing out (aka minimizing) your so-called flaws. While the wording and the rigidity of the system leaves something to be desired, I think Kibbe ultimately has some benefits when you view it as a more body-positive way of looking at style.
Kibbe types for petite bodies
As hard as it is for most women to determine their Kibbe type, I’d say this might be even harder for petites.
See, there are supposedly 5 main Kibbe types. But the Kibbe system, as it was first defined, decided that shortness is a “yin” (feminine) feature, not a “yang” (masculine”) feature. So short women are told, according to the system, that we can only be two of those: Romantic or Gamine.
Romantics are the Marilyn Monroe types — short, curvy, hourglass, all softness and roundness and sex appeal. The Kibbe definition of a romantic body type is described as moderate to petite, usually under 5’5″, with a soft, curvy, voluptuous figure, delicate bone structure, full and soft facial features.
Gamines are the Leslie Caron types — a study in contrast between yin and yang. Kibbe says gamines are also petite, or 5’5″ and under, but with sharper, more angular body types and bone structure. They’re described as lithe and lean, with narrow breasts and hips, leggy and coltish, and possibly short-waisted, with slight bone structure, large eyes, and wispy, childlike facial features.
In contrast, the other three families of types are supposed to be reserved for taller women. Classics are said to be of average height — not short, not tall. Naturals are said to be average to above average, especially flamboyant naturals, who are meant to be tall. Dramatics are said to be exclusively tall. Why? Because tallness, as defined by David Kibbe, is a masculine or “yang” trait.
So in theory, for petites, determining your Kibbe style should be as simple as answering a single question: Are you curvy, or is your body more of a straight up-and-down style? If you’re curvy, you’re a Romantic. If you’re straighter, you’re a Gamine. The end.
So are all petites romantics or gamines, then?
It should be easy enough to disprove this fallacy just by looking at various celebrities who are under 5’3″. Petite celebrities like Kristen Bell (soft natural), or Lucy Liu (dramatic) should make it obvious that height and type are not necessarily correlated. There are tall gamines, short dramatics and everything in between:
While it’s true that the definitions of Dramatics and Naturals tend to emphasize height and stature, the yang elements of these types can come across in different ways. Lucy Liu, despite being 5’3″, is all sharp angles, bold facial features, and contours all point to Dramatic. She’s a sharp contrast to similarly petite Salma Hayek, who, at 5’2″, has an hourglass figure, rounder hips, a more voluptuous bustline, and softer yin features.
So if you’re petite, and you read the descriptions for both Romantic and Gamine and neither one seems to quite fit, then you should go on to read the other types to find your type.
Kibbe tips for petites
Let’s say you’re petite and you determine your Kibbe type, and you want to make the style advice work for you. Here’s some general advice for each type:
Some general principles
- Scale the advice to fit. With a shorter stature and less vertical real estate to work with, we petites need to scale down the general advice to our proportions. Whether it’s wearing a loose and flowy top with a belt, shortening a jacket, adding smaller-scale ruffles and flares, or keeping accessories and bags moderately sized, we just need to adjust every detail smaller.
- Less is more. Pick one detail that you want to emphasize and make that the star of the show. Very tall women can often get away with the “more is more” principle, pairing drama on the top, bottom, neckline and accessories all at once. We petites are generally better off picking one detail to emphasize.
- Find a good tailor. This is not specific to Kibbe, but is good advice for petites in general: Look for a good tailor that can make those pieces you love fit perfectly. Or learn to sew and do your own alterations. None of the styles above will look quite right on you if what you’re wearing doesn’t fit.
- Remember that fashion is cyclical. Styles come and go. Right now, most of the Hollywood celebrities and fashion models tend to favour the Natural type, with loose, unstructured clothes, athleisure, and oversized lines. This may be tough to pull off for some petites. But it wasn’t always like that; the 1920s were all about Dramatics, the 1940s favoured Classics, the 50s were all about Romantics, and the 1960s favoured Gamines. The 1970s ushered in a Naturals era, but it didn’t last; the 1980s were all about Dramatics again, with their boxy big shoulder pads and yang styles. Classic came back for a brief period in the mid-1990s, before reverting to Naturals again, which is where we are today. So if today’s fashion trends aren’t quite working for your body or your sense of style, shop the vintage or thrift stores, go online for pieces inspired by your decade, or just wait it out — we’re due for another style shift soon.
- Don’t take it too seriously. These types are massive generalizations. Women come in far more than 5 — or 13 — style types. And our styles can change with age, time, season, or on a whim. There’s nothing that stops you from dressing however you want, no matter what some silly book from the 80s says.
Advice for each Kibbe type
Note that, while I haven’t written posts for each of the 13 subtypes, you should still be able to apply the general principles of your “pure” type, softening or emboldening them as necessary.
So what’s my Kibbe type, then?
I’ve taken this quiz a few times and honestly, I’m still not sure.
Physically, I don’t really fit into any of the Kibbe categories. The typology as written by Kibbe doesn’t offer a lot of options for pear-shaped bodies, even though it’s by far the most common female body type. Most of the Kibbe types — Natural and Dramatic in particular, but also Gamine — are meant to have broad shoulders and narrow hips. Classics are meant to have moderate curves that are perfectly balanced on top and bottom. Even the most classically feminine type, the Romantic, is described as having an hourglass (relatively rare) rather than pear-shaped (far more common) figure.
I wonder if this was just a Kibbe personal stereotype coming through in his work, a sign of the times when he wrote the book in the late 80s. But either way, Kibbe typology, if taken too literally, would exclude the vast majority of women just on physicality alone, myself included.
So I’m left with trying to use other cues to work out what my type might be. Reviewing the quiz categories, I get mostly Romantic answers for body type and bone structure. However, reviewing the style tips, that doesn’t really fit. I don’t look good in ruffles and bows, and I get overwhelmed in overly frilly feminine details, which tend to look silly and over-the-top on me.
One decent way to figure it out is to take a look at myself wearing different styles, and comparing them to signature looks for each Kibbe type, in order to determine what works best for me. What kind of pieces do I gravitate towards? What looks tend to work for me?
I can definitely rule out Dramatic and Natural right off the bat. My short torso and longer legs mean I need definition at the waist, period. The long, big, bold fashions popular with Dramatics — floor-length gowns, maxi skirts, angular lines — are so terrible on me that I struggled to find a single item in my wardrobe to even photograph for the example piece. (The one I chose was a bit of a cop-out, since it’s not even really a Dramatic style, and it’s something I returned after trying on, anyway. But I really couldn’t find anything else for this photo.)
As for Natural, that’s a non-starter. I need a defined waistline, period. The loose, BoHo pieces I always admire on the rack always end up being a mistake. This dress looked cute on the model but was tent-like and awful on me, and went straight back to the store. In contrast, Kristen Bell, who is the same height and of a similar size to me, has a proportionally longer torso and can rock those looks as a Natural or Soft Natural. It’s a great reminder why proportion matters so much when it comes to style — maybe even more than height or overall size. But I digress.
Likewise, despite being petite, I can maybe rule out Gamine, though this is tougher since nobody seems to quite agree on what the definition of Gamine is. For me, a telltale sign is that I look ridiculous with a short pixie haircut, and high necklines do me no favours. Gamines also tend to have more angular builds, and to look good in childlike, playful prints and colour blocks. None of those ideas really work for me. While some of the descriptors of Soft Gamine do apply, I think ultimately I’m too curvy to truly pull off a Gamine look.
Physically I probably fit the Romantic body type the most. And the thing is, I can pull off those looks sometimes — mostly if I’m getting dressed up for a special event or occasion. But in my daily life, it’s just too much work. And I definitely need to keep the details scaled back. Too many fussy details just look ridiculous on me. Usually if I dress in more Romantic styles, I will end up looking “pretty” more than “sexy” in them — a telltale sign that I might not truly be a Kibbe Romantic:
Style-wise, I probably lean most often towards Classic — neutrals, clean lines, timeless pieces with more structure to them, and balanced silhouettes. Though with my body shape, I tend to wear looks that are Soft Classic, such as a-line or fit-and-flare silhouettes rather than sheath dresses or pencil skirts. Clean lines work for me. I also tend to keep my casual looks very simple, with basic jeans and tees in clean cuts and a simple array of colours. So yeah. Soft Classic is looking like a fair possibility.
Ultimately I think I feel most like myself in Classic styles, so I’m gonna go with that for the time being.
Maybe you disagree? Tell me your opinion in the comments below.
(General disclaimer: I’m definitely not an expert in Kibbe and don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself in this post. I’m aware that David Kibbe has gone back on a lot of what he said in his book since it was published, anyway. This post is intended to just offer some general guidance for petites, inspired by Kibbe’s approach. All tips and advice are my own.)