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When shopping for clothes in stores or online, you probably saw a “petite” size category. Maybe you struggle to find headlines that are short enough for your dimensions but are scared to take the leap into petite sizing? Here is what “petite” means in clothing sizes and how to know if they are right for you.
What Are Petite Sizes?
Petite clothing sizes are designed for women 5 feet 4 inches tall and shorter, regardless of their build. There is no equivalent for men. Traditional women’s clothing sizes cover from 5’4” to 5’8”.
Traditional hemlines are often too long or short for anyone who does not fall within the height though it varies by person. Petite options offer shorter hemlines for women with shorter legs or torsos. Waist size is often not different from standard sizes, with both traditional and plus options falling under the petite category.
Why are petite sizes their own category? Women’s sizes began evolving more than a century ago.
How Petite Sizes Came to Be
Depending on your experience with the fashion industry, it may or may not shock you that women with shorter dimensions were not always considered when designing clothes. As fashion evolved, designers realized they were missing that critical market.
Petite Fashion Pre-WWII
Prior to the 20th Century, women’s clothing was custom-made based on their individual sizes. Designers began standardizing men’s clothing during the Revolutionary War, since there was no time to customize each uniform for each soldier.
While lower-class families had fewer options, wealthy families had their clothes perfectly tailored to show their status. Women’s clothing took a longer time to produce than men’s since there were more individual measurements to consider in order to create the desired figure. Corsets, girdles, bustles, crinolines and stays shrunk the waist and created wide skirts. While men’s fashion had its trends, they were not nearly as complex as women.
Throughout the decades, women’s fashion evolved with American politics and trends from across Europe. By the 1900s, it was hard to keep up with women’s styles, especially for the average shopper who could not find personal tailors. This was made even more complicated by World War I which required many women to enter the workforce. As designs made the first standardization attempts, it was impossible to count for each woman’s unique body type.
While modern “juniors” sections are meant for tweens and teens, the original intention was for women whose proportions were too small for standard store sizes. They arose in the 1950s and specialized in shorter waists, leaner diaphragms and various heights regardless of age. Many retailers called the section “junior-miss” to differentiate between children’s clothing. Eventually, this section evolved into “petite” with “juniors” taking on its current meaning.
In the 1940s, US designer Hannah Troy looked at the recorded sizes of women participating in World War II and noticed that only 8% of them fit the standard sizes. Many of them were “short in the waist” she noted while doing research. This led to her creating a new range of styles under the umbrella term “Troyfigure” as a mature version of “junior” styles. She kept the new proportion a secret when launching the line and found that it was more popular than her other ranges.
Many consider the Troyfigure the birth of modern petite fashion. Other brands caught on and soon made their own proportions that mimicked the style. Troy is credited with naming the style “petite” and saying “it just had a nice ring to it.” She also admitted to later regretting the moniker.
Troy passed away in 1993 and the dimensions for the original Troyfigure were lost over time.
In 1958, the United States Department of Commerce released body measurement guidelines for women’s clothing. It listed three separate sizes: petite, regular and tall. This became the most diverse range of sizes yet, with several different guidelines in each category for waist, bust and hip measurements. It gave more versatility for designers to add new patterns and styles to their collections.
The 1980s is when petite became its own category instead of being a subcategory of women’s or junior’s clothing. This better defined its purpose but created some anxiety among shoppers who were self-conscious about shopping there. While they were based on the Department of Commerce’s standard size recommendations for the three categories, companies began straying in order to create their own size guides. This made women’s clothing more confusing as someone’s size in one brand might not match their size in another brand.
The Modern Conflicts of Petite Sizing
Though petite sections still exist in many department stores, they are fading. This phenomenon is not due to a lack of inclusion but an improvement in one. In 2023, many brands are still coming to terms with the varying sizes of women’s bodies. While stores like Torrid cater to “plus size” dimensions, retailers like Old Navy and H&M are incorporating plus sizes into their “standard” women’s section.
There is a similar phenomenon happening with petite clothing. “Short” versions of jeans and pants now appear in bothe juniors and misses sections, with the latter catering to women who are past junior fashion but are not yet ready to dive into women’s apparel.
Over the years, petite clothing became seen as older women’s clothing, once again removing its intended purpose from society. The styles for petite clothing in many stores do nothing to help that stigma. As brands began incorporating petite-friendly sizing into their standard sections, the distinction began disappearing.
However, while some retailers are making strides, others are getting rid of their petite sections because they do not make enough money. These same stores often do not have sizing inclusive to all women who could have worn that clothing, making it frustrating.
To fill the gap, specialty stores and styling services are working to provide personalized styling services to shorter women. Some even provide sustainable options, giving women more of a choice. The industry as a whole is trying to figure out where petite dimensions fit and without standardization, it could be a long road before shorter women know where to find basics and the latest trends.
So, What Does “Petite” Mean?
It depends who you ask. While most brands still categorize it for women 5’4” and under, the industry is continuing to evolve. As companies seem to struggle with incorporating short women into their brands, it is best to do your research and try on clothing to learn which pieces fit you best.
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