Why I Started Caring About Petite Maternity Clothes
For 16 years, I was a happy educator (teacher, principal, education director) without any aspirations toward a career in fashion. Until 2018, if you had told me I would one day found a maternity fashion brand, I would have found the idea hilarious. That all changed when I got pregnant and discovered that maternity clothes (especially maternity clothes for work) are not made to suit 5'2" women like myself. When maternity work clothes are produced at all, they're almost universally proportioned to tall women. Trying to wear these clothes as a short girl during maternity made me feel even more unprofessional and frumpy than pregnancy was already making me feel.
Being short shouldn't be a sentence to unprofessional dress during pregnancy and nursing (or the corresponding loss of professional status that comes with it). After all, working moms can spend years in maternity and nursing clothes if they have multiple babies and/or breastfeed the 24 months now recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. After my second son was born, I decided that short moms deserved better. I left my role in education and dove into learning everything I could about the business of fashion. 8 months later, MARION launched, offering a high end line of sustainable petite and standard-sized maternity work clothes, along with maternity basics.
I'm here to tell you that starting a fashion brand isn't easy, but it's been so much fun to meet a real need for mamas-to-be in maternity office wear, and to see MARION's growing list of happy, powerful mama clients. One of the most gratifying parts of my experience has been the number of petite working moms we've been able to serve. About 40% of our sales are petite maternity pieces - petite maternity dresses; dress pants; and petite -friendly leggings, pencil skirts, and nursing tops.
The Problem With Petite, and the Problem Without It
Recently, I came across an Instagram post by @shortapparel describing how and why the hashtag petite has been banned on Instagram. At MARION, we often use hashtags that include the word "petite," and I initially felt surprise and a little stress about potentially being shadow banned or just having our posts hidden. (In case you're curious, several updated lists of banned hashtags are available with a quick Google search.) When I dug a little further, I learned that "petite" is also a banned hashtag on TikTok and Pinterest at present.
The more I've thought about it, the more I understand why the word petite can be problematic. Petite has often been used to mean not only short, but tiny, dainty, and fit-in-your-pocket cute. Cringe. Even the Oxford English dictionary defines petite as "attractively small and dainty (used of a woman)." These descriptors certainly don't apply to every short person, nor should smallness and daintiness be the bar we set for the petite ideal.
While some current implications behind the word petite are problematic, a lack of the word petite is also problematic. For better or worse, fashion brands have long used "petite" to designate clothes that are made for short people. Given how much of our purchasing behavior now takes place online, it's more important than ever that brands make it easy for a customer to tell what they're buying. Without the word petite, short (or tall) customers are left to sift through long descriptions on product pages to try to glean a garment length or inseam measurement. Even when specific measurements are present (which is not a given), not everyone has a tailor's tape in their purse to check exactly where a 30" body length is going to land on their frame.
Short isn't a universal state, of course, but when a customer buys a petite maternity dress from MARION, they can feel confident that the dress was cut with shorter straps/sleeves and a shorter hemline, among other things. When they buy petite friendly maternity dress pants, they can rest easy knowing the inseam is under 28" and the rise has been abbreviated to suit their short stature. Petite maternity designations have everything to do with the length of garments, and nothing to do with width. For example, our size XL-XXL maternity dress pants are made for sizes 14-16 (hip measurements 43"-45"), and offer an inseam under 28".
From "Short Girl" Streetwear to Petite Maternity Dresses, Short Shoppers Need a Designation They Recognize
Without petite designations, fashion waters get muddy for short online shoppers. Some brands designate their pants "short, regular, and long," but this isn't in wide usage, and almost never applies to tops, dresses, or outerwear. For now, when someone wants to describe clothes made for short people, the word "petite" is the word that comes to mind.
This makes the social media ban of the petite hashtag especially challenging for a brand like MARION, as we work to spread the word to short mamas that someone is finally making a full line of petite maternity clothes for work. Since learning of the petite ban, we've been wrestling with what hashtags to use that won't violate social media policy, but will still communicate to our customer base that they can find short-friendly maternity clothes at our store. #shortgirl is a pretty common hashtag, but it sounds casual and calls to mind trendy streetwear much more than petite maternity skirt suits. Not only that, but global brands and retailers like J. Crew and Nordstrom continue to designate short clothes as petite, and it feels unlikely that a social media ban will change the longstanding, financially entrenched industry standard. It simply makes the task of identifying height-inclusive brands more challenging for shoppers on social media.
I propose that we solve these dilemmas by collectively agreeing to reclaim the word "petite." Petite fashion is fashion made for people under 5'4" tall. Period. It means that the inseam, hem, sleeve, and/or rise of a style is cut to suit a smaller height. Waist, bust, and hip measurements are completely separate from length considerations, and should be exclusively designated by alpha or numeric sizes, just like they are in "regular" clothing. If Oxford insists on keeping its "dainty" definition, I say it's time we make the switch to the much more useful Merriam Webster definition of petite: "Noun: a clothing size for short women." Nailed it.