The Short Straw

Rachel Stevens for Next Petite

Rachel Stevens for Next Petite

I’m standing in the changing rooms looking like an overgrown five year old wearing her mother’s frock. Except I’m not five, and I’m not wearing my mother’s clothes, I’m simply short. There, I said it. Short with a capital S. Five foot one to be precise. If you’ve ever taken an overly generous lump off of a hemline from a new pair of trousers, or thrust your irritatingly long jacket sleeves up for the umpteenth time, you will understand me when I say our high street petite clothing collections leave a lot to be desired.

Last year the petite fashion market grew, excuse the pun, to over £0.9 billion. In fact, figures from Verdict research predict that sales in petite clothing will grow by 25.7% until 2015, numbers that outperform the overall women’s wear market. “With the fashion sector largely undeserved there are opportunities for retailers to expand ranges, especially where fashion trends and styling is very fit-specific,” says research analyst Carly Syme.

As tempting as it may be to lay blame on the much examined foreign manufacturing system (it’s no secret the British retailers still manufacturing here can be counted on one hand) it is only partly to blame in a section of the industry where misrepresentation is rife. The lack of accurately sized models in the petite fashion industry is misleading for consumers who need to see how accurately their clothes are going to fit.

Despite having one of the most varied ranges available, online clothing retailer ASOS continue to use tall models to market their petite line. Their recent attempt to introduce “shorter” models saw them introduce shorter (five foot six) models, to market clothes suited to fit women anything from five feet to five three. That’s at least two inches taller than the tallest possible petite length, and that’s still without taking into account women like me, who need an even shorter length. While this may well be considered short for the fashion industry; the reality couldn’t be more contradictory.

Kirsty Denison,  author of petite blog; Diary of a Small Girl knows all too well how important accurate representation is within special fit sectors. “The fact is petite models should be in our magazines, on our adverts, showcasing our petite lines. We should be using the everyday media to boost the self-esteem of petite girls who up to this point have been told (consciously or otherwise) that only tall is attractive. A 4’11″ girl (like me) will not look the same in a dress as a 5’7″ model, however small she may be compared to normal models. If they made buyers aware of the models’ heights – like they do for the standard collection – that would help petite women decide if it’s worth the splurge. The fact is that they don’t, and it feels a bit sneaky. ASOS Petite is a god send, no doubt, but we could do without the need to guess-timate the size of clothes which are supposedly tailor-made to fit our frames. I think if they’re going to offer this amazing service, they might as well do it properly.”

She’s right. Student Ben Barry (a PhD student at Cambridge University) surveyed 3,000 women, the vast majority of whom “significantly increased their purchase intentions when they saw a model that reflected their age, size and race.” So where exactly are all the petite models?  Other special fit sectors would not dream of miss-representing their products, or the very ethos behind them. Imagine a voluptuous size 16 modelled by a size 6. For some inexplicable reason, this same continuity has been neglected for petites.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes at ASOS petite buyers continue to use petite fit models but regrettably fail to include them on their site.

However, there are areas where the petite market is continuing to develop. Though many retailers have consistent petite lines, (think Topshop and Miss Selfridge) some are only just recognising the need for versatility and diversity. High street retailer New Look recently expanded their petite line after seeing increased demand for clothes with accurate proportions and shorter hem lines. “The appetite for petite clothing on the High Street is growing rapidly and we want to ensure we are catering for the needs of all our customers. New Look have seen a strong demand from customers, especially on our social networks. We take pride in the fact we listen to what our customers want. It’s important that we offer customers of all shapes and sizes the key styles from the core range, specifically tailored to suit her shape. We’re launching the petite range in store from May, with plans to continue to grow the range and increase the number of styles.”

It’s still a pocket of the industry that despite demand, still seems massively underdeveloped, and unchallenged. “We’ve had Crystal Renn for plus-size, Lea T for transgender; it would be great to see a petite model in Vogue or Elle, and to have people discuss height as an issue much like weight has been of late”, says Denison.  Could it be that petite is just yet to have its moment? Plus size has, and will continue to have its moments in the spotlight thanks to some controversial moves. Mark Fast’s entourage of “curvy” women back in 2010 sparked debate at the time, and lest we forget Lizzie Miller who graced the pages of US Glamour magazine with a pooch that threatened to cause rebellion in the industry. These snippets of controversy are fleeting, but rarely forgotten.

As petite lines continue to expand and increase their ranges, it seems only fair the marketing should correspond to the product. Is there a five foot, size three shoe wearing petite prophet on the horizon? The one who will show me exactly where that mini dress will hit and lend me not the sinking disappointment of yet another inaccurate purchase but god forbid one of satisfaction. Only time will tell. Until then, we await a growth spurt. Literally.