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They've been called cute, doll-like, even miniature - names that would all be OK if we were talking about Thumbelina or a teacup poodle. But when you're speaking of adult women who are tired of fashion options ranging from jeans for pre-teens to dusters for "Grandma Moses," they say it isn't easy or fun being cute, especially when you want to look polished and professional.
Recently, we asked petite readers, women who are 5-foot-4 or shorter, to share their shopping challenges with us. More than 40 did. "My whole life I've heard how nice it must be to have a petite figure. The reality is that being petite just isn't fun when it comes to trying to find clothes that fit," said Lea Weishaar, 31, of O'Fallon, Mo. "Sometimes my petite body is embarrassing. Today at work, I had a jacket hanging in my cubicle, and an average sized co-worker said, `This jacket resembles doll clothes to me.' I just laughed, but I didn't have the heart to tell her that it was a size 14 from the girls' department."
"I'm still shopping in the juniors section of clothing stores because I'm not quite ready to start dressing like my mom," scoffed Carly Kaufman, 23.
While their sizes range from extra small to plus (petite sizing is more about height than weight), their challenges are similar. Many women spoke of having a hard time finding affordable and fashionable clothing that fit; of finding pieces that didn't require alterations; of finding age-appropriate clothes; and finding pieces that fit all parts of their bodies.
Recent college grad Gail Eisenberg, 23, of Creve Coeur, Mo., struggles to find clothing that is "both work and age appropriate." She is on a budget and doesn't want to spend a fortune on alterations.
"I can't afford to add $15 to the price of every pair of pants I buy," she said. While she'd like to wear skirts, knee-length ones made for women of average height look awkward because they often fall well below the knee. Longer skirts simply swallow her 5-foot-2 frame.
Eisenberg met us at a Kohl's department store, where assistant store manager Mary Stevens poured over the racks of the store's petite section in search of pieces that were trendy yet professional looking. Sizes in the petite section range from 2 to 16.
Two outfits turned out to be stunners. The first was a Daisy Fuentes aqua velvet jacket, which was paired with a black microfiber cami and career striped pants.
"I would have never thought to mix textures. There are a lot of things I like but don't know how to put together," Eisenberg confessed.
A second outfit, this one skirted, got an approving nod as well. Stevens found apt. 9 tweed suit separates. She paired them with a lacy green cami and platform shoes.
The look was just right. "I learned I still can look professional and look like I'm 23 years old, too," the young grad said.
A common complaint among older women was having few fashion-forward choices.
"I've tried to find sophisticated, sexy clothes that don't come from the juniors section, but I usually just get frustrated and give up," noted Carrie F. Mattingly, 33, of west St. Louis County.
Melanie Vasconcelles, 54, of Springfield, Ill., is comfortable in a size 12 jeans - for girls. But she'd rather wear items that took her sensibilities and age into consideration.
"A sexy look is totally out for me as they just don't make anything in my size that is sexy looking," said Vasconcelles, who is 4 feet 8 inches tall.
Debbie Nolden, 47, of Town & Country, Mo., has spent much of her adult life shopping in the juniors department, often right along with her two daughters, ages 26 and 21.
"Very soon I'll be a grandma, but I don't want to look like one," her letter read. In fact, Nolden is engaged to be married and wanted to look for outfits to take on her honeymoon. She met us at a Banana Republic Petites boutique. There, merchandise presentation supervisor Greta Kukay and general manager Rachel D'Souza helped the 5-foot-2-inch Nolden. After finding several options, they whittled the choices down to two. The first was a sassy satin print cami and a pair of premium denim jeans.
"I love this, but I feel like I don't have anything on," said Nolden of the party ensemble. The second, her favorite, included a puff-sleeve velvet jacket, a chocolate tiered skirt and a matching mock turtleneck.
"It's cute, and I love brown and neutrals. I want to look slightly dressed up but comfortable," explained Nolden. Nolden wasn't only struck by the stylish options she found, but also by the fit.
Kukay explained that petite sizing doesn't simply mean smaller, it points to very specific reductions.
In blazers, it means narrowed shoulders, higher arm holes, raised waists, narrowed flat pockets, shorter, more narrow sleeves, shorter and more narrow length and an overall smaller body fit.
For pants, she says, it means higher re-scaled pockets, reduced waist and hip widths, a shortened rise, smaller thigh and knee widths, shorter length and reduced body widths.
Sizes at the new Banana store range from 0 to 12.
In the end, "We put her in clothes that fit her personality," D'Souza said.
Nolden agreed. "I tried on things that I would have never worn before. I felt taller," she said.
Others just dream of a day when things simply fit.
"Everyone would like to be my size, but I would like to be someone else's size for once," said Amy Buhr, 33, commenting on the difficulties of shopping for her tiny frame.
Amy McLard, 32, alters everything before wearing it. But she wishes she didn't have to. The 5-foot-3-inch lobbyist and public relations specialist says even when she shops at petite stores she often has to get out thread and needle.
McLard met us at Talbots Petites. Associate store manager Dana Grant and others assembled a casually chic look for this businesswoman who rarely focuses on the fun-factor of fashion.
The group pulled an uncut corduroy jacket, a pair of stretch boot flair jeans and a wrinkle-resistant white shirt for McLard. An extra long strand of pearls added a classic element to the ensemble.
While the jacket was still a bit long and the shoulders of the shirt didn't quite fall over her own, McLard was pleased.
"A lot of times I only concentrate on work clothes but found out that I can look nice and pulled together even in my off time," she said.
It might sound strange that, even in a petite store, sizing issues still exist, but Grant says it can happen.
"If you're shorter, you're still going to need alterations, if you want to look good," the manager said. Petite sizes at Talbots range from 2 to 16.
Petite sizing comes with its own challenges, obviously. But sometimes it can become even more complicated.
"They forgot about petite sizes for me," said plus-size petite reader Terry Fischer, 46, whose frame sometimes requires a petite size 18.
Kim Williams Dahlman, a petite fashion specialist, consultant and author from Orlando, Fla., says she often hears complaints like Fischer's. "It's out there, but at a more moderate price point," Dahlman says of larger-sized petite apparel. "Companies like Alfred Dunner and Sag Harbor make those sizes, but department stores don't always buy them."
When they do, she says, they may only get one or two units in a particular style.
But things are likely to change.
According to the NPD Group/NPD Fashionworld Consumer Data Estimates, petite women have spent a whopping $9.4 billion on clothing in the past 12 months.
That is compared to $99.4 billion in the total women's apparel market.
"They finally realize the buying power of the petite woman," Dahlman says. "I think women my age, 46 and older, have a young mind set and want to still look contemporary but not like our daughters. That's a challenge out there right now."
(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.