A Short History of Petite Dresses: An Overlooked Segment of the Fashion Industry

Have you ever quietly perused the kids’ clothing section as an adult? Had to climb onto the counter because you couldn’t reach an upper cabinet and there was no ladder nearby? If so, you understand the inherent challenges of being petite.

While those challenges don’t begin and end with the trial of finding dresses and other clothes that actually fit, that hurdle typifies “a day in the life of” a petite woman. While some retailers are finally recognizing that petite women both exist and want to look good, many seem oblivious to the fact that these women are part of our society. It’s astounding, but something that petite women have been forced to deal with since, well, the dawn of fashion.

An Industry Short of Options

Step into any fashion retailer today and you’ll find one of two situations. Either there are no petite options, or the limited selection they have is tucked away in a back corner near the single plus-size rack of clothes. It’s a surprising situation given the industry’s incredible evolution over the last century or so.

Women’s fashion has gone from frocked-and-frumpy to a chaotic explosion of style and form that allows almost any woman to find options that fit her body and her sense of style. Except for petite women, of course. And, sadly, that has been the situation for a very long time.

What Does Petite Really Mean?

The single question that has echoed throughout the history of petite dresses and other clothing is this – what does petite mean? For too long, it simply meant taking a standard dress and cutting off the bottom few inches. After all, short women were just that, right – short?

Many problems exist within this line of thinking. Petite women aren’t just normal women who are a couple of inches shorter than some imaginary average. Petite women can be slim, curvy, apple-shaped, or pear-shaped, and more.

Even today we struggle to arrive at a wholly satisfactory definition of what petite really means. Wikipedia defines it as standard clothing designed to fit shorter women. But is petite only about height, leaving weight out of the equation entirely?

Not really. Yes, petite women can be curvaceous. Yes, they can be slim. Yes, they can have any other body type, but often, those dimensions are also proportional to their height. You cannot divorce one from the other by taking a size 18 dress and lopping off six inches in length. It might fit but that fit would be pretty unflattering because the dimensions of the rest of the dress are off.

To really understand the challenges here, we must understand standard sizing. Standard women’s clothing is designed for those who are 5’ 5” barefooted. For women who are even an inch shorter than that, wearing standard-sized clothing may mean that the waist and hips might fit, but the inseam, torso, and sleeves are all wrong. The only answer is to have the clothing altered.

Who Are Petite Women?

Retailers (past and present) seem to struggle to understand who petite women are. Are they teens on the cusp of womanhood? Are they octogenarians who’ve lost height and bone mass in the aging process? Are they mothers, sisters, daughters?

In truth, petite women are not any of these things, and yet they are all of them. Designing for one subset of the market automatically excludes all other subsets. So, creating petite dresses for women in their 90s might be just fine, but only if that’s the only petite demographic you want to reach.

Petite women make up a considerable segment of all fashion-buying women in all age groups and demographics. They’re professionals, athletes, mothers, and teens just coming into their own. In fact, they are no different from any other women and have the same desire to find flattering, comfortable clothing that fits properly.

What Does It Take to Create Petite Clothing?

Given the extreme shortage of retailers that cater to petite women (pun intended), you would think that it took considerable resources to create clothing to fit them. Is that the case, though? Does it really require some massive effort to design dresses that aren’t just shorter, but proportioned correctly for petite women?

No, it is not that difficult. The problem is that most retailers have simply never realized the sheer size of the petite audience. The fashion market (and most other markets if we’re being honest) is not designed to provide something for everyone. It is an attempt to provide a sizable majority of women with clothing that fits acceptably (although acceptably may not be all it’s cracked up to be when everything’s said and done).

Retailers try to design clothing that is “close enough” to the right fit. Most women who wear a size 18 don’t really wear a size 18. They might wear a 16, or need a 14 but the bust line in most clothing that size doesn’t work right, so they buy a larger size and just deal with the unwanted length. The history of fashion is littered with examples of women being forced to make do with what’s available.

In fact, that’s precisely what petite women had to do for most of the fashion industry’s history. Until the 1940s, there really weren’t any clothing options for petite women.

Petite Dresses and Other Clothing Over the Years

Before the advent of the modern fashion industry (something that really only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century), clothing was mostly made to fit. Dresses were designed for the wearer, which meant that, unless she was wearing a hand-me-down gown, a petite woman’s dress fit quite well.

Of course, there were problems with this. Custom clothing was expensive. Design and production were slow. Everything was personalized, so fabric manufacturers were not really able to make the profit they would otherwise have.

Enter automation in the form of new weaving machines and sewing machines, and it becomes possible to produce not just fabric, but premade dresses, blouses, skirts, and other clothing on an incredible scale. The challenge? Sizing.

Before automation, clothing was customized to the woman’s body. Manufacturers had to find a way to get around that issue. The answer was “standardized sizing”.

To reiterate – two women who wear the same size clothing do not actually have the same body shape or dimensions. They are simply able to fit within the confines of the same clothing. It might not even be all that comfortable, but the mentality is “if it fits, it fits”.

This is where standardized clothing has gotten us – the idea that women’s bodies can be broken down into categories that relate to arbitrarily assigned numbers. This was the first step in mass-production of clothing, and the most critical, as it meant that manufacturers were able to focus on the middle ground – the so-called average woman – to the exclusion of others.

Why did manufacturers go this route, though? Wouldn’t it be more profitable to clothe all women in the world adequately? The answer always comes down to cost and complexity.

Because petite women aren’t just standard-sized women only shorter, the same design minus a few inches off the hem won’t work. The story is the same for plus-sized women. In order for the hem to land correctly, for the neckline to be correct, for the sleeves to fit properly, you need three different patterns, not just one with some minor modifications. Creating those patterns, changing machine tooling for different production runs, and all the other requirements necessary to cater to all women is expensive, and retailers want to control costs above all else.

At first, there were no petite dresses or other clothing produced. Women bought off the rack and then took their clothing to have it altered. That was the reality for short women for decades until the 1940s arrived.

The 1940s and Onward

During the 1940s, designer Hannah Troy realized just how hard it was for some women to find petite dresses and other clothing that actually fit them. Her answer was to create petite sizing by reducing the torso and waist of typical clothing. For a long time, that remained the sole nod toward creating clothing that fit petite women.

However, over time, some designers realized that petite women were not only part of their audience, but that they were being poorly served by the clothing options on the market. In answer, a growing number of manufacturers started offering at least some selection of clothing to their more petite customers. Still, that selection was small and grew only slowly.

The Emotional Component

Too many designers take the stance that women simply want to cover portions of their bodies. Isn’t that the function of clothing? The truth is that women want to feel good – they want clothing that fits well, flatters their form, and provides them with the confidence they need to take on the world. That emotional component is often missing.

Petite Dresses Today

Today, petite dresses are more widely available than at any point in history. Some designers have finally realized that over 70 million women in the US alone fall into a “special size” category (petite or plus-size). In fact, half the population of the country is under 5’ 4”. Yes, roughly half of American women are actually petite.

The result of this realization is a growing number of options for petite shoppers. With that being said, you will still probably have a difficult time finding much in the average big-box store. Even retailers that cater to some degree to petite women (J. Crew and Ann Taylor come to mind) won’t offer more than a rack or two of clothing options.

Specialty retailers have stepped in to fill that gap. At Connected Apparel, we have long realized that petite women are underserved and under-represented. We offer a broad range of petite dresses and other clothing specifically designed to fit your body.

Sizing and Other Considerations for Petite Women

As mentioned, designing clothing for petite women requires more than just lopping off a few inches in height. Proportions change as you scale a dress up and down. Even if by some miracle the hip, waist, and bust measurements do translate from standard sizing to a petite buyer, there are still other measurements that will be off, including sleeve lengths, back length, and bust-waist length (with standard sizing, they’re typically too long for women under 5’ 4”).

So, when shopping for petite dresses and other clothing, height is the most critical factor but it is really just the starting point. Know your personal measurements – shoulders, torso, bust, waist, and hips.

Don’t Forget About Style

Of course, buying clothing isn’t just about finding the right size. You also need the right style. Are you looking for office apparel? A great dress for a night out on the town? Something light and flowy for summer or airy and bright for spring?

With the right designer, you’ll have options for every season and every occasion. There is simply no reason that petite women should be relegated to a single rack or two at the back of the store – you deserve the same range of options as any other woman.

Connected Apparel Isn’t Short on Options for Petite Women

At Connected Apparel, we realize that petite dresses must be more than just shorter versions of standard-sized dresses. We design petite clothing to fit your entire body. From floral beauty like Tina or Erika to scintillating style with CAxLX Kym or the daring two-tone of Quinn, we have petite dresses designed to fit and flatter your body.

We also understand that petite does not just mean “shorter than some mythical average”. Petite women can be curvaceous or slim, and come in all shapes. No matter what your body type might be or your preferred style, we have something to delight you. At Connected Apparel, we have over 70 years of experience in fashion design and we understand the challenges that our petite customers face.

Shop our collection of petite dresses, jumpsuits, separates, shawls, cardigans, and other clothing designed just for you.