Petite Fashion Challenges

Petite fashion challenge: Narrow shoulders

I’m a petite who also happens to be pear-shaped or A-shaped. What that means is, I have proportionally narrow shoulders and wider hips, which leads to my overall shape suggesting the letter A.

When you have narrow shoulders, clothes won’t drape or hang properly. Add to that being short, and most of the time, clothes are meant for much longer broader shoulders. They’ll bunch up funny on the back or torso, cling unflatteringly to your stomach and hips. If your shoulders slope, that effect can be compounded.

Here are some tips for how to shop for narrow shoulders:

V-necks are your friends

The biggest advantage of a v-neck is that it creates the illusion of wider shoulders. The trick is to ensure that the shoulder seam sits squarely on the edge of your shoulders, and not halfway down your arm. Otherwise they’ll just look sloppy. Scoop necks and sweetheart necks will have similar effects, but make sure they’re in petite styles that aren’t cut too low. Boat necks, provided they’re not too wide, can also look good.

The idea on all of these necklines is to create a “v” shape from your waist midpoint out to your shoulders. This visually broadens the shoulders and narrows the waist, making your proportionally wider hips look more in balance.

Avoid halters, spaghetti straps or off-the-shoulder styles

These have the opposite effect of v-necks, narrowing the shoulder line and emphasizing the hip area. If you’re a petite pear, this is not what you’re going for. The current trend for cutaway or cold shoulder tops is another one to avoid. It looks great on those wide-shouldered models, but just compounds the problem for us narrow-shouldered shorties.

All of these necklines do precisely the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve; that is, they visually form an “A” from the neck down to the waist, making the shoulders look even narrower (and, consequently, the hips look even wider). This works well on an inverse-triangle body type, but not on us narrow-shouldered pear shapes.

Add a little embellishment at the shoulders for visual interest

Cap sleeves, flutter sleeves, ruffles or added detail at the shoulder all add visual interest, drawing the eye up and making the shoulder area look broader and more in proportion.

Flutter sleeves are one of my favourite tricks to dress a petite pear-shaped body, especially on dresses and blouses, because they are lightweight and feminine but give the illusion that the shoulder is stronger than it is.

Avoid sloppy shoulders

Relaxed fit tops, dolman sleeves, raglan sleeves, or dropped shoulders are increasingly popular in fast fashion. Unfortunately, on us narrow-shouldered petites, they will just look sloppy, droopy, and call attention to our proportionally larger hip area. Avoid these if possible, and look for shoulders with a defined seam that sits at the right place.

Structured blazers are your friend

One of my favourite fashion tips to balance out narrow shoulders and broader hips is to add a structured blazer. The best ones for this purpose have a structured shoulder, nip in at the waist, and end just above the high hip. This visually widens the shoulders, narrows the waist, and de-emphasizes the hip area. As an added bonus for us petites, this jacket length is great at drawing the eye up and making us look taller.

Try to avoid blazers or jackets that are too loose, boxy, oversized, that end at a cropped length or, conversely, that come down past the hip area, since all of these will just make your top half look like a box that follows your widest part (the hip) rather than showing off your curves and narrow waist.

Fit the shoulder first

If you read most shopping guides, they’ll tell you — correctly — that shoulders are expensive and often impossible to alter on most clothes. It is sometimes possible to narrow the shoulders on a pattern. But on an existing garment, taking in the shoulders usually involves taking apart and remaking the entire thing from scratch.

Instead, they usually advise broad-shouldered or busty women to fit the shoulder and take in the waist.

Well, we narrow-shouldered ladies have the opposite problem. But the advice to fit the shoulder still applies. What we want to do is to fit the shoulder — with a smaller size if necessary — and then actually let out the bust or waist if needed.

How is that possible, you may rightfully ask? And the truth is, it’s not always. At least, not on all clothing. Cheaply made garments won’t have much of a seam allowance, making it tough to let them out at all. Some styles are just not going to work for us. But that’s okay, because this is possible on other items.

  • Jackets and blazers can usually be let out a bit on the sides or at the darts, and buttons can be moved slightly. Good quality suits can usually be adjusted outwards by an inch or two by a good tailor. This is one alteration that I don’t suggest hacking at home, unless you know what you’re doing. Pay the money for a professional.
  • Sweaters and other knit tops will usually have some degree of give or stretch to them naturally. Personally I find it helps to go with natural fabrics like wool or cotton that have some natural give without being too clingy. If you buy a top with too much lycra or modal in it, it will probably droop to your hips and cling there.
  • Blouses and button-down tops are trickier, and often tough to fit. One option is to go custom, having them tailored perfectly to fit from scratch. This can be less expensive than you might think. Another is to wear them open with a tank top or camisole underneath. Look for looser or less fitted styles that can be purchased in smaller sizes to fit your shoulders while still buttoning closed.
  • Petite cuts are critical here. If you combine narrow shoulders with a short torso, you may find it almost impossible to find a top that fits in the regular misses’ section. Petite garments have narrower shoulders to begin with, as well as a raised waist. You’ll probably have better luck overall.

Buy bras with centre-pull straps

Narrow, sloped shoulders can mean an endless day of pushing up falling bra straps. It’s really annoying, trust me.

One way to avoid this is to get a bra with a smaller band size. Most women are wearing bras too big in the band and too small in the cup. If you’re still using the “add five inches” method to calculate your bra size, you’re doing it wrong.

But even if you’re in the right bra size, if you have narrow shoulders, you may still have a problem with falling straps. This is where styles with centre-pull straps come into play. They have straps that are set a little closer to the neck, as opposed to right on the edge of the shoulder. You can find them by trying on, or by sorting and filtering on sites like to look for styles specifically advertised as having such straps.

Other options are convertible straps with hook closures, or racerback bras. For more details, check out my post on bras.

Cheating (a little) is okay

Shoulder pads bring back terrifying memories of Melanie Griffith-esque boxy suits and big hair from the 80s. Certainly that’s a look we want to avoid. But it is possible to add a small sewn-in shoulder pad that will give only a very subtle lift to your shoulder line… no perms required.

Use colour and pattern to your advantage

Don’t forget about the power of colour! Visually, dark colours minimize while light and bright colours draw attention. You can use this well to mimimize your hip area and maximize your bust and shoudlerline by wearing brighter, lighter colours on top, and darker colours and neutrals on the bottom.

Patterns are also incredibly powerful. Pay close attention to where your patterns are placed; try to add stripes or prints to your top half in a way that they visually create the “V” shape from the shoulders to where your waist nips in, and avoid patterns that do the opposite. A contrasting collar or lace detail at the neckline can help accomplish this as well.

The bottom line

Narrow shoulders can feel challenging to dress, especially in our current era of fast fashion designed for broad-shouldered supermodel types. But they don’t have to be daunting, if you adopt these tricks.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to have fun with your clothes. Once you train your eye to see the basic shapes, necklines and silhouettes that flatter narrow shoulders, you’ll start finding them everywhere. Be creative! The possibilities are endless.

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