Let me just start by saying, I feel your pain. On a good day I measure 5’1”. And here’s a little FYI to clothing manufacturers: the average height for women in both the US and the UK is 5’3” or 161.6 cm. So designers, you’re missing a HUGE demographic!
And here’s another FYI for clothing manufacturers: we petites don’t consider 5’4” petite. Buying things, especially slacks or jeans, cut for someone 5’4” means an automatic trip to the tailor for us. Also, many department stores have simply eliminated their petite departments entirely, with the excuse that petite women tend to want to look sexier or more fashion-forward. This might be true for younger women, but it doesn’t do the rest of us over 60 any good.
So, now that I got that off my chest, let’s look into some of the problems and solutions for getting the best fitting garments for women who are petite!
If you just love something and (unless it is a knit) and it’s too long, or the sleeves are too long, or the waist is too big, those alterations are often fairly easy and inexpensive, especially if you’re handy with a sewing machine.
But there are certain things that just can’t be altered without significantly changing the way the garment was designed to look and to hang. Those include arm holes, and very often, shoulder seams.
Unless a style has sleeves that are placed below the shoulder intentionally, as are some knits, you don’t want the arm hole to sit below your shoulder. That will just make you look sloppy, and in fact, shorter. In the warmer weather months, be mindful of the size of the armholes so that your bra or underthings don’t show.
It’s also true that certain silhouettes – like very wide, flared leg pants or blouses with puffy sleeves, or other kinds of “statement” sleeves – can’t be adjusted without changing the line of the garment. And you just can’t change the rise of a pair of slacks or jeans.
Also, keep in mind that you can pretty easily remove extra fabric, but you won’t be able to add much. So, start by looking for things that fit your largest parts first, and then have the garments tailored to fit the rest of you.
Then there is this: petite doesn’t necessarily mean short and slender. Especially as we age, it can mean that we’re carrying a few extra pounds. One thing I recommend to my clients is to have a tailoring work-up through a service called Fashion Fit Formula.
That site requires you to send in several measurements of your own body (e.g., distance from chin to waist, hip bone to ankle, etc.) and then they send you a printout showing the ideal point at which to have various hemlines as well as things like necklines, necklace lengths, etc. tailored. Using those hemlines will create the most flattering, slimming and lengthening proportions for your specific body.
If you already have a tailor who has a good eye for this, learn what they feel are your ideal lengths for hemlines, sleeves, etc., and carry those measurements with you on your phone.
One of the biggest challenges at our age is that, although some of us may still be considered “cute” we don’t want clothes that are “cutesy.” Cutesy doesn’t exactly cut it after a certain age. In fact, it’s kind of annoying. We’ve earned our years and would like to be taken a little more seriously when to comes to fashion. I, for one, want to look a little more sophisticated.
Having said that, there are some shopping advantages to being petite. One of a petite’s best kept secrets is that they can shop in the juniors section for many items, and will often pay less for them than they would in the women’s department.
Items to look for in those departments include sweaters, pants, jackets, almost anything, as they are scaled down for a typically smaller body. Unless you are particularly busty, another advantage is that for things like button down shirts, tee-shirts, and even blazers, you can shop in the ‘boys’ section. (Don’t feel awkward doing so either. A good friend of mine shops in the men’s section for work jeans and another buys men’s sneakers for her size 9 ½ feet.)
If you feel your legs are still worth showing off, a petite can often look terrific in shorter skirts. And if your legs are a bit veiny or you feel too fleshy to go bare, wearing leggings or dark stockings with shorter skirts is another great option. In fact, emphasizing your legs can often make you look taller.
And lastly, as many petites know, cropped pants in regular sizes can also be a great option. They are often a perfect ankle-length for us shorties.
Speaking of which, there are several tricks to looking taller and slenderer. The first is to create a “columnar” look in your overall line. What that means is don’t cut yourself up by wearing chunks of color, color blocked tops or bottoms or multiple patterns.
Those delineations can emphasize your height (or lack of height.) So, the obvious option is to create a monochrome column of color, or of slightly different shades of the same color.
That could mean wearing slacks and a top in a similar color, a fitted midi dress and matching stockings, or if you are a little too heavy for a fitted dress, a long, hanging looser style with matching stockings or similar length with a longer over coat. It’s a sophisticated and elegant look in general.
Then there are necklines. Very high necklines, (not including turtlenecks, which are primarily Classic in their style and can be a part of a column dressing outfit) or those with a lot of detail around a high neckline tend to visually shorten you. V-necklines, surplice tops, or draped softer necklines will make you look taller.
When it comes to prints, choose those that don’t overpower your frame. Look for ones whose delineating lines are smaller, e.g., thinner stripes, not thick. Especially thick horizontal lines will tend to shorten and widen you. But don’t think you have to forego prints entirely. A general principle about prints – for everyone – is that they should be proportional to your height and girth.
Unless you are very busty or have a very short waist-to-bust ratio, think of wearing something that is fitted and shorter for your upper body garment, and long and wider for your lower body garment. That could mean a closer fitting blouse or sweater, cropped jacket, and wider leg pants.
Yes, I know some people feel that wide leg pants will make a short woman look shorter. But it’s not always the case, especially if you wear them with a heeled shoe, like a bootie. The key is that they are not visually out of proportion to the rest of your body or your outfit. Any garment that stands out on its own can make you look smaller.
Another flattering option for many petites could be to wear a shorter fitted top, an unbuttoned blazer or jacket, with a long midi skirt, tights or leggings, and a slightly heeled shoe. And in the summer, slightly flared slacks, and maxi dresses are another terrific option.
The reverse of that is another possibility, especially if you are very busty or are carrying extra weight in your midsection. It also works if you simply want a more relaxed, laid-back look. What that might look like is a looser, longer, tunic-style top worn with leggings or slim pants or jeans. It can be elongating and flattering. The hem length of the tunic top here is crucial. The right proportion of the top can make you look slimmer and taller, and the wrong proportion will do the opposite.
Generally, you want to avoid very over-sized garments or voluminous amounts of fabric. They can weigh you down visually.
And then there is the waistline conundrum. In jackets, adjustability, as with drawstring waists, can be a blessing for a petite. Unless you have a very long torso, wearing a dress, skirt or pants with a slightly higher waistline than your actual waist will lengthen the look of your legs and shorten your torso.
If it is the upper half of your body that is shorter, make sure that the waistline of your garment exactly matches your own waist, or is ever-so-slightly below it. And the right size belt is crucial. It’s a rare petite that can wear a belt more than 2 inches wide or 5.08 cm.
Speaking of which, the size of accessories is another important consideration when it comes to petite dressing. A daily handbag shouldn’t be much larger than the size of your body from your front to your back. Any bigger and it starts to look like a burden, not an accessory.
A tote can, of course, be larger but for either, you don’t want the straps or handles to reach mid-hip or hip length. That will visually drag you down.
When it comes to shoes, try to avoid Mary Jane styles as they will truncate the look of your legs, unless you wear exactly matching color stockings, in which case the instep or ankle strap will just visually disappear. And, as mentioned earlier, stockings that match your clothing are a great way to elongate the look of the leg. If you’re buying boots online, always check the height of the shaft of the boot so you don’t end up with boots that hit against the back of your knee.
As for jewelry, don’t be afraid of statement pieces, but keep the length a bit shorter, especially if the material of the necklace is multicolored or a bright color. Longer statement necklaces will overwhelm petite women.
Showy earrings, like chandelier earrings, are fine as long as they don’t graze your shoulders. Keep them only as long as your chin, maximum. And be careful about how much jewelry you wear at one time. Statement necklaces, plus bracelets and earrings are too much all at once. (But that also goes for women of any height.)
As for scarves, it’s hard to find smaller knit scarves, but just avoid super thick or poufy ones.
Lastly – and this is one of my pet peeves – most hangers will stretch the shoulders of petite sweaters, blouses, jackets and coats out of shape. It’s worth investing in a set of hangers specifically made for petites. You can find lots of options online.
Have you shopped in the petite section of a store? Or have you bought petite clothing, even if you aren’t petite? Why? What is your favorite outlet for petite clothing?