My View

Michele Berger: Petite please

November 12, 2013 

As a 5-foot-3/4-inch petite woman, until recently I’ve always accepted my minority status in the fashion world.

Growing up, I learned through the models that I saw in catalogs and fashion magazines that clothes were made for and the domain of taller women. I’d come to accept some givens of life, like when I shop for clothes 1) I’ll have to alter most of what I buy, and 2) I’ll have fewer stylish selections to choose from and they’ll range from clothing with a girlish ruffle sewed on every possible square inch of material, or matronly sweaters with an overabundance of appliqued fruits and vegetables across the chest.

I’d even gotten used to a blasé kind of treatment by sales personnel. Last week I went to a well-known women’s clothing store chain. I hadn’t been there in a few months and I couldn’t find the petite section. I asked a salesperson if she could tell me where they had moved their petite section. The salesperson looked at me and pointed toward the misses section. I said, “You’ve mixed the petites in with the misses? That makes a lot of retail sense, huh?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

I added, “So now, for petites, it’s fend for yourself clothing?”

She didn’t seem to understand why I was irritated and frankly, insulted. I believe it’s the underlying belief that the industry holds about petite shoppers: that those harmless, docile, slightly embarrassed small women will take anything that we give them.

But we won’t or we shouldn’t! Not anymore.

After the shopping incident I did a bit of research and discovered that I’m actually in the majority!

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average woman’s height is 5’4”. Some estimates suggest that there are approximately 100 million petite women in the United States that are categorized as “fit, curvy and plus-sized”! Another shocker I discovered is that the fashion industry-preferred standard size of women at 5’9” and taller only represent 3 percent of women.

And, according to analysts, petites are a $9 billion industry. So, why do I often come home after a weekend of shopping feeling vexed, disrespected and downright disappointed? The fact is that retailers haven’t caught up with this new reality and that tradition, inertia and lack of consumer organizing all play a role.

There is a glimmer of hope as several new online sites feature designers offering limited lines for petites. Also there is the lifesaver petitefashionista.com that provides up-to-date links to name-brand designers and stores that sell petite clothes. But this is just a drop in the bucket and does nothing to combat the lack of equity of representation in major department stores. Several years ago Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s all made news when they downsized their petite departments.

I know the retailers have been in the “big girl” pride moment for the last decade, focusing on the plus-size market, and that’s great. Monique, Star Jones, and Ricki Lake, you go girls. But, where’s our contests, catalogs, or dare even I say magazines? As a girl I use to dream of entering the Miss Petite America pageant (yes there was such a contest, you had to be 5’ 4” and under to compete in it).

Retailers and pageant hosts, where’s the love?

Maybe petite women need our own reality show to get noticed, a hybrid of “What Not to Wear” meets “Survivor” where fashion designers are brought to an island and forced to come up with stylish lines of clothing with nary a ruffle or piece of appliqued fruit in sight. Or, maybe the trick is to get a hip-hop song promoting our needs.

If pop culture is not the way then effective organizing might be the key. I’ve been thinking about the following: Petites United for Fashion. So, the acronym would be PUFF, probably too cutesy – but it’s a start. Our chant would be, we’re here, we’re petite – dress us!

Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, creativity coach and writer. She can be reached at mtb@creativetickle.com.

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