Dress Code: Scaling Down The Petites Question


Yes, fellow short woman, today on Dress Code we’re taking on the world of too-long pants and ill-proportioned dresses and Misses’ departments and limited options and, yes, talking solutions:

When people hear “petites,” they think an elfin gamine. Sure, that’s one group, but the term takes in all shapes and sizes under 5’4″, from Misses to “boyish” to, well, any of the multitude for whom clothes simply are not cut and proportioned. Because as anyone who’s dealt with this issue knows, there’s a lot more to it than just chopping 9″ off the bottom of your jeans:

Most pieces on advice for petites deals in tips for “looking taller.” While most of us are in no danger of fooling anyone into thinking we’re not short (although heels do exercise a strange amount of power in this regard), these generally include:

  • Dressing in a single color palette to create a continuous line
  • Emphasizing vertical lines, be they knits, zippers, plackets or stripes
  • Avoiding breaking up the body with blocks of color
  • V-necks and, in the case of higher closed necks, long necklaces or scarves
  • Fitted shapes that don’t “overwhelm” the figure, in lighter, less-bulky fabrics
  • Small prints that don’t “wear” you
  • Keep bags and accessories small for scale

While I see people break these rules with success all the time (a confident woman can tame even the biggest, boldest Lily Pulitzer monkey), with these you have the basics. And I thought Lucky‘s recent feature on “unexpected pieces that look great on petites” was a great source of inspiration!

A few things more specific thoughts I’d add:

  • A jacket that hits at the hip always looks good
  • If you don’t like heels, a pointy flat is also flattering
  • Cropped pants are kinda unflattering, despite the fact that every petite line carries them. I still wear them, but no one can deny that they make one look shorter. That said, sometimes they just save us the trouble of hemming and can work as regular pants!
  • Wrap dresses are a good petite option in any size: they conform to your body and they’re easy to hem.
  • Unless they match your skin-tone, an ankle-strap will knock off inches faster than almost any other single piece of clothing.

The real issue, of course, is finding clothes that fit properly in the first place. As we all know from bitter experience, just chopping off that foot of denim isn’t going to do much if it ruins the whole line of the pants. There’s always alteration, yes, and if you do go that route, these tips can be helpful:

  • Shoulders are dealmakers and dealbreakers. If something doesn’t fit in the shoulder, it can’t be altered.
  • Things that can: long sleeved and legs; waists can be taken in.

Where to shop for basics
Lots of places carry petites, but here’s the rub: half the time, they’re not available in stores (yes, we’re looking at you Bebe and most J. Crews) and when you do check them out, there’s a seriously limited selection (Again: Bebe.) They’re not always truly petite! Sadly, sometimes this just means trial and error. But here are a few tried-and-tested sources that have proven reliable for the petite amongst us:

  • Department stores. Most larger department stores, both higher and lower end, have entire petites and Misses’ sections. A few that we know to have comprehensive selections: J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Saks, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor.
  • J. Crew. Although like all their clothes, J. Crew’s petites suffer from confusing vanity-sizing that requires much trying and may involve sending things back repeatedly, J. Crew makes a lot of basics in petite sizes. Especially good for suiting, jeans, dresses.
  • Banana Republic. See: everything about J. Crew sizing, except even more so. But Banana tends to have a good in-store petites selection. Especially good for work basics.
  • Ann Taylor. Another one that carries their petites in-store. Good for work basics, especially jackets.
  • Lauren by Ralph Lauren. Your go-to for preppy basics. Especially good for coats.
  • Nicole Miller. Yes, they can be more pricey — but these perfect, basic dresses come in petite sizes, too.
  • Old Navy. Many things in petites at good prices. Again, try try try as sizing varies.
  • They’re not technically “petites,” but for fancier dresses, I have had very good luck with the brands Madison Marcus, Shoshanna and Migeulina, all of which seems to cut for a petite fit models.

Where to buy jeans
Jeans are a hassle for anyone, but when it feels like every inseam is made for a heel-wearing giantess, it becomes doubly challenging. As a general rule, straight-leg jeans are the easiest to hem (skinnies can work too) but there are plenty of brands that cater to petites and array a range of scaled-down sizes:

Foreign Sizes:
Both Euro and Japanese clothes tend to scale smaller — they don’t tend to have petites. That said, US versions of these same companies’ clothes are scaled differently for the American market.

People used to be shorter. They also often wore serious foundation garments, so a lot of them are small. But whatever your size, vintage is a great option for those of us under 5’4,” especially things from the 60s or before. (People seem to have abruptly gotten taller in the 1970s.) If you buy online, most vintage vendors will give the height of the model, too, always helpful. As with anything vintage, check out the measurements rather than the numerical size.

Kids Stores
If you’re really small, children’s stores can be a fun option. Brooks Brothers boys’ department is great for button-downs, actual schoolboy blazers, plain tees and PJ’s. The Children’s Place is a good resource for tee-shirts and blouses. And don’t forget the teens’ departments of department stores. And kids’ clothes are generally cheaper, too.

Petite Plus Sizes
A number of the lines that are good for petites generally — Talbots, Lands’ End, Macy’s — have good plus options. A few that cater specifically:

  • Catherines. This good-value plus-size site is especially good for dresses and pants, and carries a selection of petites in sizes OX – 5X (14W – 36W).
  • While you may need to dig a little on Woman Within, persevere: the user-friendly site has a good selection of one of the hardest thing to find in any petite size: coats and jackets.
  • Petite Lingerie
    We touched on this in the bra discussion, but it bears repeating: The Itsy Bitsy Bra Bar and LulaLu are completely devoted to bras for petite women, and come in a range of small back-sizes.
  • Petite Swimwear
    The proportions of these suits are made for a smaller frame: read, shorter in the body and straps. Land’s End has a good line of simple, classic suits for petites. Meanwhile, Macy’s carries a really good selection from a number of designers.
  • Petite Maternity
    There are more and more good options for the petite pregnant woman. A few good ones?
  • British site Reet Petite carries a line called (sorry) Mini Mum that’s chic, classic and comes in sizes 6 to 20. Bets of all, the site has a try-before-you-buy policy. (The site appears to be under construction but stay tuned.)
  • BellaBlu’s petite maternity section has some adorable dresses and petite maternity swimsuits.
  • Although it’s not terribly extensive, Penneys’ maternity clothes all come in petite sizes and they have some good basic pants.
  • Never forget: you can wear tunics as dresses, wear heels without our skirts becoming obscenely short and, yes, make more convincing re-enactors. That’s not small potatoes.
  • But let’s hear from the rest of you: resources, hints and tips? We’re listening!
  • For all of our handy Dress Code guides, go here.
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