The Story of Petite Fashion: Why Don't We See More Petite Women in Fashion?

At 5'6", Kate Moss was always known in the industry as the “short girl” despite the fact that she is taller than the average British woman. In 2009, America's Next Top Model dedicated an entire season to petite models where the winner, Nicole Fox, was 5'7". It begs the question: why is our perception of height so skewed? Today, there are conversations about weight, race, age, gender and disability in fashion but height is perhaps the last frontier.
When universal sizing standards were abandoned in the 1980s, the fashion industry developed its own unwritten rules. Today, fashion brands develop their designs on a model known as a “fitting model,” who is typically between 5'5" and 5'7". In recent decades, this became the arbitrary standard for womenswear even though the average woman is about three inches shorter. 
Fashion has always had a fixation with tall, slender silhouettes, beginning with the way that designers illustrate the body. Fashion designs are conventionally sketched on a figure that is exactly nine heads tall from the top of the head to the ankles. It is thought that the exaggerated proportions help to convey the drape, cut and style details of the garment. But the nine-heads figure is a highly distorted and unrealistic body shape, and its indiscriminate use implies that clothes only look good on certain bodies.
Realistic body (left) compared to the “9 heads” figure used in fashion illustration (right). © Amiko Simonetti.


Some designers argue that fashion is a subjective art, and that they should be allowed to design for the woman they envision. But this kind of reasoning only reveals how size discrimination in the fashion industry is often masqueraded as an artistic choice. Most designers aspire to work in high fashion and many falsely believe that luxury customers are taller and thinner. Sizeism begins at fashion school, where the majority of students are never taught or exposed to petite or plus sizing. These are known as “specialty” sizes and there is a general perception that they are commercially unviable or more challenging to work with.
Sizeism trickles down into the world of fashion modelling, where height remains the most stringent requirement for becoming a model. The minimum height for a runway model is 5'9", while commercial models are at least 5'6". Models under 5'6" are usually “parts models” who only model specific parts of the body, such as the face, hands and feet. Since there is lower demand for petite models in the industry, modelling agencies rarely represent anyone under 5'7". We experienced this firsthand when casting a professional petite model for our campaign. Most “petite” models recommended to us by agencies were 5'6", while models under 5'5" were few and far between.
Shorter women have been mostly invisible in mainstream fashion until the peak of celebrity culture in the 2000s, when celebrity status established women as fashion icons, irrespective of their height. Prior to that, magazine covers were reserved for 5'9" fashion models who were celebrities in their own right. In recent years, the growing demand for diverse representation and the rise of the influencer has seen petite women such as Lily-Rose Depp (5'3"), Amina Blue (5'1") and Tess Holliday (5'3") walking major fashion runways.
However, even today, the fashion industry does not speak directly to the petite woman. From magazines to e-commerce, the marketing of petite fashion remains essentially non-existent. Retailers that offer petite sizes usually photograph their clothes on standard models and repurpose the images for petite product listings, meaning petite clothes are never displayed on a petite body. Many brands also don't specify what petite means or who it's for, adding to the confusion. Consequently, petite fashion has become so obscure that many consumers are unaware that it even exists.
In order to change the way we serve and represent petite women, we need to understand the business of fashion. Most fast fashion brands design, sample, manufacture and deliver up to 100 styles in only six weeks. These companies are well-oiled machines that require the coordination of many parts and that are shaped by long-held habits which are not easily modified. In the final part of this blog series, we’ll explore the reasons why serving petite women requires fashion brands to completely change the way they do business.