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Petite Womens Fashion

Image Planning
Petite Sizes - Fashion Comment

By Pauline Weston Thomas for


Image Planning
Petite Fashion Comment


The Need for Petite Fashions

Petite in fashion retail terms usually means proportionately scaled down clothing ranges for smaller women who are 5’3" and under.  Newly set up companies like Petite Affair are challenging the existing petite offerings from retailers.

Often the most neglected petite is wide and short, but still with a small frame that means narrow shoulders, small wrist bones and a small foot size.   Plus size women of average height are offered a much greater range of fashion clothes.  You can see some petite fashion especially from Petite Affair on the Petites Fashion Trends Autumn 2006 page.  Incidentally, the header image on this page is also courtesy of Petite Affair and shows a party dress in damson crushed velvet.  It's size 6-14 at £89 and a petite fit.

The commentaries on this page are related to some of the problems that petites face.  I know there are more problems, so if you have a comment about petite fashion that deserves airing,  please write to me.

One reader recently wrote to me with the following problem, she has a wedding coming up next year and will be the mother of the bride.  Guess what - she is petite, a size 16 and straight down, an apple shape.  My heart went out to her and her obvious despair.  This is why I have added a page on petite autumn winter fashion in the fashion trends 2006/7 section.  I have also added comments on petite women's clothes here, where one or two points may help you.

Petite Problems and Petite Fashion Fit Failings.

There is most certainly a need and a demand for petite fashion clothes.  For 20 years I have been friends with several petite women and we have often fashion shopped together.  This is frankly useful as you tend to look at the same fashion ranges and be happy browsing as you both remain interested.  I soon began to realise that petites were a niche market often neglected by the high street in much the same way that plus sizes were ignored 40 years ago.  However, the plus market has fared better for specialist plus size shops, but the petite market has lagged behind.  Even the plus market is still not perfect.

There are plus petites and these are often ignored too by the plus retailers who seem to think fatter women must be very much taller, broader and have enormously long arms.


So What is a Typical Petite

When people think of petite they think of a dainty little wisp of thing like Kylie Minogue.  In reality there are also short full figure petites as well as short slender petites and tall slender petites.  Petites always have a much more delicate quality to their physique than the average woman.  Invariably the one thing all petite women have in common is small shoulders. 

One aspect of the problem as I see it, is political correctness.  Whilst many petites are dainty, slender and delicate, what many petite women require are clothes that fit a short fatter figure.  I feel I can say this because I don't sell clothes and I have at times been a short fat petite myself!  No one will say this, because vanity branding is rife.  Plus size petites find little quality fashion that is special targeted at them.  Age can also add weight to a petite. I just looked up some Google images of Charlene Tilton of Lucy Ewing 1980s Dallas fame.   Charlene - now some 25 years older, still looks good, but is wider, yet of course she is still petite.  This is the fate of many petites in middle age and it can cause greater problems than normal, as width is not compensated by height and so it is not hard to look compressed.

But with the internet has come opportunity for petite women who are making their feelings known.  Petites want fashion and they want it now.  A woman who is a lean 4'11", size 6 and overall petite, feels her problem is very different to a woman who is big busted, 5'3" and a size 18.  It is hard for the two to relate, other than knowing that for each, shopping is a battle. 

Even a woman of 5' will find that the trousers offered in many petite ranges, are too long because they are designed for a woman of 5'3".  The ranges need several choices of length within the petite range to accommodate the many body types of petites.  The Petite Affair range,  mentioned above does this. Consider also the woman who is taller than the 5'3" cut off for petites, she has has narrow shoulders, tiny waist and short arms, but long legs.  Or the woman who is not 5'3", but 4'11" and still needs alterations to fit even petite garment ranges.

Oh No My Gran Would Wear That - Not Me!

20 years ago, even 40 years ago, some petite collections were available, but very few appealed to me or my friends.  My friends wanted edgy fashion clothes that didn't remind them of something their grandmother might have worn.  They especially wanted better proportioned arm lengths and shoulder widths for example.  Existing petite ranges were often directed at a more mature market.  While the elderly petite market is important, what is needed is a clothing company that will also cater to both younger petites, with a bridge range in between.  The requirements for young and old petites are slightly different.

An older petite woman over 65 will most likely have a pot belly that she has been developing since middle age.  Nothing she does will get rid of it.  Even Lauren Bacall in her autobiography refers to that inevitable waist thickening.  By contrast the younger petite woman might have hardly any flesh on her belly and be washboard flat and quite bony.  Manufacturers might like to address these differences.


Shrinking Older Ladies

This inadequacy in mass produced clothes came to my notice when my mother started to ask me to alter more and more of her clothing.  For years she had run a fashion shop business.  I had also often made unique clothes for her in my earlier years when dressmaking was my hobby.  She had been accustomed to clothes being expertly fitted to her body.  I recall she was much taller.  When I moved district it was less easy to make her clothes, and also, she gradually shrank with age.  On my visits she was increasingly showing me clothing she had bought that always had something not quite right with its fit.  She knew full well they were not quite right, but she bought the best fit on offer in frustrated desperation.  I knew they were not right too and so would do the finest alteration I could, to improve the fit.  Sometimes individual tailoring is the only answer.   Either alter the clothes yourself or make the acquaintance of a good dressmaker.

Fuller Figure Petite Problems

To get clothes wide enough for her actual bust size, she had to shorten sleeves and the skirt length on just about everything.  That did not seem too awful at first, but soon I began to have to add extra little darts at the back neck or have to lift and taper a new shoulder seam to reduce that irritating little neckline gape.  This was because her ageing shoulders were beginning to round slightly, her vertebrae very slowly year by year meeting each other and her bust no longer defying gravity.  All these factors began to cause gaping necklines as her posture and muscle changed with age.  Your body might be doing just that too.  Nothing will make an ill fitting garment fit better when you get it home, but a well targeted alteration.

Often the sleeves on bought garments would be set into a shoulder line way, way to wide hanging off her shoulder.  I would unpick three quarters of the sleeve head, cut away up to 3cm of fabric from the main bodice armscye and reset the sleeve.  Fortunately I can pattern draft and tailor so knew exactly what area could be cut and how to taper and cut the armscye and still leave wearing ease.  It is not a perfect solution and should be done in the early pattern drafting stages, but some solution is better than no solution.  Needs must.

This job is less of a fiddle when it's a dress or top, but a jacket is a major alteration job as the sleeve head is full of stay tape, interfacing padding and shoulder pad.  If you have never done this before practice on an old garment you intended to give to a charity shop before experimenting on a new item.  Pick a day when you feel especially patient. You can even do as I do. unpick part of it one day and do a bit more another day.  It can be easy or tedious dependant on a particular garment. You can read more on how to do this shoulder alteration below.

Older Petite Fashion

Eventually we started to step outside of the normal sized fashion ranges and looked at petite fashions.  Now we usually find something to fit her fairly well in the Eastex range.  Even some of these items can drown her on the shoulders.  But this is a very 'safe' looking range paying minimal attention to fashion trends and really simply does not begin to appeal to the young consumer.  I'm not in the first flush of youth either, but it doesn't appeal to me one bit.  But older women do have a range they can head toward they know will likely fit.  But it is not a range I want to head toward when I get even older!  


Without doubt Eastex is aimed at a much more mature market which simply want very classic clothes that will carry from season to season.  Eastex knows their market and is a brand that seems to do very well for the Alexon group.  Since we are an ageing population this is not surprising.   Eastex along with Alex and Co has continued good sales compared to other sectors of that fashion group which includes Kaliko, Minuet Petite, Dash, Ann Harvey, Bay Trading and Dolcis.  To maintain a market share I think Eastex should make efforts to realize that anyone who passed through 1960s fashion will be more demanding in the future and they must consider addressing this now.  Young women of the 1960s today in their fifties, shop in places like per una which was initially directed at a much younger group.  In fifteen year time if Eastex wants to retain a good market share it should consider this fact. 

Back in the 1980s along came NEXT DIRECTORY and Principles at about the same time.  They offered some more up to date Petite selections beyond the mature market that Alexon's Eastex seemed to target.    NEXT in particular has really attempted to offer a medium fashion conscious mid priced range especially of work wear for petites.  As a catalogue system it has made this fairly easy for two decades.  In fact they are hard to beat for petite fashion wear.

Other major retailers slowly began to acknowledge that petite women want proportionately scaled down high fashion items rather than just shorter clothes.  Petites want high fashion specially designed for a petite figure and proportions too. 

High Street Brands Selling Petite Ranges

Major companies now addressing this petite fashion market include NEXT Directory, members of the Arcadia group - Wallis, Principles, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Wallis Petites and lately Marks and Spencer who before the petite range did shorter lengths in clothes which is not quite the same.   Even these companies mentioned who offer petite ranges do so in limited numbers of the overall designs made.

Other labels in the Jacques Vert Group are Precis Petit and the Alexon Group which has Minuet aimed at younger 35+ market than their Eastex range aimed at a mature market.  Précis Petit have nice styles for petites, but much of the range is getting too precious and going toward too much occasion wear. 

In a discreet way newly set up companies like Petite Affair are challenging the existing petite market.   This may just be a small company right now, but watch it grow with bigger and better ranges. The founder of the Petite Affair company is a petite woman.  Petite Affair understands what petite women are looking for and is building an online business which responds to customers comments in their search for petite fashion looks.  They recognise that there is not just one type of petite person, but within petites, many who are wider or even smaller than those 5'3" industry set standards for the term petite.  At present they offer 3 trouser lengths with 1 inch differences and in future hope to offer more alternative lengths.

Retailers generally are making more effort.  For example at Wallis, fashion is proportioned with garment patterns adapted to suit the woman with shorter arms, shorter body and narrower shoulders. The Wallis Fashion petite range jackets are cut narrower by 1cm on the shoulder, waists are 2cm higher, sleeves 4.5cm shorter, petite fashion skirts and dresses are 5cm shorter, with petite trousers 7cm shorter and also 1cm less at crotch.  Marks and Spencer offer similar adjustments to garments in their petite range.

Some Petite Guidelines

Understand Your Body Shape


Petite women can follow the basic image planning rules of other women, but need to pay just a bit more attention to their body shape.  Firstly ‘know thy self’ and that means assess your body silhouette shape plus your skin and hair colouring against the colours you can wear with success.

Get to understand your petite body shape.
Is it boyish, lean and small chested?
Or is it curvy, round and fulsome?
Are you long or short legged?
Are you short bodied or longer in the body?

Work with your good points and play down the bad points.  Look for articles of clothing and accessories that are proportionate with a smaller daintier person.  Emphasise curves and avoid baggy clothes that may drown you. 

Select Only Scaled Down Items in Every Fashion Aspect

You might like to compare yourself in single breasted and double breasted jackets and coats.  Single breasted garments will make you look less boxy.  But you may look perfectly ok in a double breasted jacket if everything has been scaled down correctly. This is often the crux of the matter - scale.  Petites need scaled down proportionately balanced pockets, cuff depth, tabs, trimmings, collars and belts.  All need to be that little bit smaller or narrower to make an outfit look correct.  Even scarves and shoulder bags look better about 10% shorter if they are to sit well against the proportions of a petite.

A bag that is not the largest in the shop may still have that now look even if it is smaller, as against you a petite it will probably look quite large. Opt for a belt that seems sized for you because it's a little bit narrower.  Delicate straps match your delicate frame.

The trick with buying clothes is to find a brand that suits you.  Then within that range some of the clothes will suit you, but not all of them.  I have found a few ranges I like for my body type and height and almost always look at those ranges first.  I may try on 10 items and then choose 1 or 2, still rejecting many from my favourite brands.   Fashion shopping whatever your size is hard work.  Why don't men understand this.

2 Examples On the Edge of Petite

My niece is 5' 9" tall, yet she regularly buys Principles petite tops. 

If you're 5' You might wonder why - well she has quite short arms for her height and also tiny little narrow dainty shoulders and a tiny waist and a graceful long neck and long face. So that upper torso has been compressed a bit proportion wise to her really long legs, long neck and head – this means she has to buy the longest of trousers, but her tops are truly tiny with a dainty look to the size - proportioned petite tops.

Next I’ll use myself as an example. I am just under 5'4", but I regularly also buy long trousers. Firstly and surprisingly I have long legs for my height, secondly I have a long waist-crutch-waist length and if I try trousers that are from Medium or Short or Petite ranges when I sit I feel extremely restricted and in the mirror the legs look 'odd'.  The knee seems to be in the wrong spot.  I am better buying long trousers and taking off one inch off the hem so the proportion of the trousers hits the right body parts.  By that I mean that the knee is where the knee should be in relation to a long lower leg from knee to foot.

So you're thinking she's average, but no, above my waist is short and the waist is almost non existent.  So in fact I can buy some tops from Petite ranges and find great shoulder fit.  Did you think you were alone experiencing this shortcoming in designs.

Now my 5'9" niece is tall enough to go shopping at Long Tall Sally yet she would find their tops far too long.  See what a problem this.  A height measurement is just that, a height.  Body proportion puts another slant on it.  The fact is few of us are average.  Only near the average.

So having given you two examples you may now as a petite be feeling happier.  You are I hope thinking ‘ I’m normal, other people are like me, it's the retailers who take a mass approach to all fashion wear that are at fault.’  So ladies go shopping knowing you are among thousands of other women with a similar problem. But is it really so bad I wonder.  Maybe your wardrobe still manages to burst at the seams like mine!  So something out there does fit us.

Don't be Lazy - Try on and Try on More

Don’t regard any body defect as a fault rather as a body difference you need to work around and dress according to that body type.  If you are flat chested go with that look.  It means you can wear halter necks without fear of your breasts falling right out or peeping out.  If you have full breasts you can wear cleavage garments with confidence and not worry about filling out a top with silicone chicken fillet inserts.

Then try on lots of styles and shapes making a note of those that flatter and those which do not.  For example short waisted women like myself and maybe like you often look good in empire line dresses a hot fashion trend right now.  Empire line dresses focus on the upper body, draw attention to the small shoulders and the face.  Empire dresses elongate the body giving a sweeping column of fabric that draws the eye down creating an illusion of length. 

Princess seams also elongate the body and give waist definition often where there is none.  For the same reason I like short cropped jackets that swing or which have princess seams that give waist shape teamed with the elongation of lengthy trousers that cover the shoe.  If you are short trousers look best when worn with boots, shoe boots or trouser boots, so there is a continuous sweep of length even through the footwear.  Unless in the great outdoors, avoid lumpy clumpy trainers that end your leg with a sudden heavy punctuation mark, cutting off that extra length a streamlined boot finish might have given you.


Be aware that trousers with turn ups make anyone, even tall people look shorter.  If you are busty avoid pockets on the chest area which again can make you look really top heavy.  Choose garments with flowing seams that all help elongate the body rather than cropping it. 

Choose for example pumps that are low cut and elongate the foot length and therefore your leg.  Avoid ankle strap shoes that chop your leg length off.  If you must wear ankle straps and why should anyone forbid you choose those with dainty narrow straps rather than thicker bands that will make the foot look heavy.

Consider this - perhaps you are very short, then by no stretch of the imagination will a heeled shoe increase your height enough for others to ever think of you as tall.  Just simply join in the current fad for ballet flats and enhance your daintiness and petite qualities by embracing a modern fashion.  It's not always about choosing flattering clothing and creating the best optical illusion, but also about capturing the fashion moment and if flats are the thing why not see how you feel in them.  You may enjoy skipping about town in them as much as I do.

The Importance of Colour for Everyone Not Just for Petites

Check fabric colours against your skin without make up and see which naturally lifts up your skin tone and which drains it.  Some colours can be worn as long as you get the correct tone.

For example I find grey fashion trends difficult to wear.  But if I find the correct silver tone of grey I can wear them.  Even so there may still be colours that just make you feel better.  Hone in on such colours and work with ones that do you a favour rather than those that drain you of vibrancy, you have enough problems already with sizing without making your complexion look flat and lifeless by choosing colours that don't suit you.

Get to understand your skin tone colouration and the difference hair colour can make to you.  Don't underestimate the importance of these 2 major points.

Finally consider dressmaking alteration fixes when you have done your very best in every other direction.

Possible Dressmaking Fixes for Petite Fit Problems


When you shop think about carrying with you a 'small' pair of shoulder pads.  See how much better or worse that jacket you try on looks with another shoulder pad.  If you think an extra shoulder pad might help the jacket sit better and not make you look like an extra out of Dynasty then buy the jacket and head for the haberdashery department where you can select a pair of pads. It is not essential to remove the lining unless you are fussy.  Just slipstitching the pads into position on the shoulder/armhole lining may suffice.

Shoulders Too Wide on Tops

Shoulders too wide, but everything else looks great - then consider resetting the sleeves.  If you can sew this can still be a taxing alteration to do and get right.  Be patient. If you have never done it before try the technique on an old no longer loved badly fitting garment! 

I repeat what I said above. If you have never done this before practice on an old garment you intended to give to a charity shop before experimenting on a new item.  Pick a day when you feel especially patient. You can even do as I do if a garment is very well sewn.  Unpick part of it one day and do a bit more another day.  It can be easy or tedious dependant on a particular garment.

N.B. I take no responsibility for any errors you may make trying this alteration.

First try on your top and see how far over your shoulder line the sleeve is flopping.   Use some pins to roughly mark where you might prefer the sleeve head to sit on your should edge.  When you are confident it would be worth doing the alteration and only if it is feasible then start to unpick the sleeve head.  (This may involve undoing facings and shoulder pads that are stitched to the sleeve/shoulders. It may also have some stay tape in position that must be undone too.)

Now unpick the sleeve from the armhole to about 2cm below the position of the lower black line shown on the bodice armhole pattern below.  Then do the same unpicking on the back of the garment jacket or bodice.

 Picture 1 showing adjustment to armhole and shoulderline for petite alterations

N.B This picture is not to perfect scale.

With the sleeves hanging half out, next try the garment on again to check the amount of fabric that is excessive on the shoulder armscye line that you wish to cut away.  Now I have a big warning here.  You must remember to leave a seam allowance so you can refit the sleeve and still move your arm.  You must leave wearing ease. 

You may find the amount of fabric you actually remove is only a centimetre wide at the widest part at the top shoulder and even less below that, yet when the garment is on it will make a huge difference to how the garment can look on you and how you somehow feel that it looks right.  The most I have  ever removed is 3cm at the top shoulder width tapering to nothing at the lower point.  Beyond that be realistic, you should not have bought such an over large garment in the beginning.

If you lack confidence and have any doubts do this trimming inward at about a 3mm at a time.  You will notice that much less fabric is removed lower down on the pattern image above than at the shoulder itself.

Picture 2 showing adjustment to armhole and shoulderline for petite alterations

N.B This picture is not to perfect scale.

Taper away the excess fabric as shown by the white line on the bodice pattern thumbnail above.  The distance between the white line and the black line is your seam allowance.  The black line is your new stitching line.  If you cut on the black line you will have no seam allowance - so DON'T do that!

Repeat this trimming on the back of the garment armhole.   Check that the shoulder seam is secure by re-machining the end of it.  Now tack (baste) the sleeve back into position making sure you ease the excess fabric into the new seaming line.  Try it on to make sure the sleeve is eased back properly and DO NOT cut parts of the sleeve head fullness away or you will ruin this alteration.  An expert may be able to judge the exact slither, but leave well alone on the sleeve itself if unsure and reset it in its original state.

Machine stitch the new seam and neaten it.  If the garment has a shoulder pad replace it if required and refasten any lining into position.

I'll be adding a few more dressmaking alteration ideas and tips as time permits.  Most people know how to shorten clothes, but I think this particular alteration - if you are confident that you don't have much to lose - can make great deal of difference to the looks of a garment.

Next time I will look at adjusting a princess side seam at a gaping armhole/bustline.

The header image is courtesy of Petite Affair and shows a party dress in damson crushed velvet.  It's size 6-14 at £89 and a petite fit.


More Petite Affair designs are on the Petites Fashion Trends Autumn 2006 page.


(Page Date 1 September 2006)

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