What Petite Means in Women's Clothing

How Being Petite Affects What Fits You Best

woman using smartphone in clothing boutique
Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision/Getty Images

When we say "petite," most people assume we mean "tiny." However, in the fashion world, petite refers to a size range of clothing that is made to fit the shorter woman who is 5 feet 4 inches or under. When you're shopping for petite clothing, it's important to check retailers' size charts because a few retailers designate 5 feet 3 inches, rather than 5 feet 4 inches, as the top height for their petite clothing.

Petite fashion first appeared in the late 1940s, reports the New York Times, when Hannah Troy noticed that regular clothing was too long-waisted for shorter women. However, for years after petite sizing was introduced into the fashion world, relatively few designers took note.

Although not all clothing makers offer petite sizing, an increasing number of them do. Retailers are also continuing to expand their selections of petite clothing to meet their customers' needs.

If you are in this height range, petites will generally fit you best no matter your body shape or age. The key word is shorter, like you. So whether you're voluptuous or rectangular, hourglass, triangle or inverted triangle, slim or curvy, this size range is for you. You can often find petites in both a regular size range and plus sizes.

Basic Differences in Fit

The most obvious thing you'll notice -- and the most important --  is that the clothing is shorter in length.

Sleeves, skirts, leg lengths, and tops are all shorter. Because clothing manufacturers cut to their own specifications, the length may be the only difference in some cases. Higher-quality petite pieces have other design differences, such as higher armholes and proportionally sized details. Petite pants should have a shorter rise, and a petite dress should have a shorter bodice.

Shopping Tips

Before you shop, get the 411 on what styles look best on your body shape combined with your petiteness and your age. Or use a personal shopper at retailers that offer them. They'll have advice and knowledge that will guide you to the most flattering choices. And don't forget that if you just have to have a piece that does not fit exactly right, you can have it tailored for that custom, perfectly fitted look.

In many cases, you'll find a greater selection of petites in retailers' online catalogs than in stores, which typically devote more floor space to regular-sized clothing. Shopping online definitely expands fashion options for petites. As with all shopping, trying before buying is better. But selection is also important, and if you know your size and what looks best on you, shopping online is a good option -- made more attractive if returns are easy, either via mail or in-store.