The Petite Woman’s Workwear Reality
If you’re a petite woman like me, you’re familiar with the experience. You’re shopping for work outfits for your job, which you love and are super committed to. You find the exact dress you need for an upcoming meeting with an important client. But without ever trying it on, you can tell it will be too long in the hem, the long straps will make it too low cut, and it will be generally oversized on your small frame. You picture yourself looking like a little girl playing dress up in her mom’s too-large clothes and heels. You sigh and put it back on the rack.
This is a common shopping reality for women under 5 feet 4 inches tall. The availability of petite sizes in department stores is shockingly limited, and several larger department stores have taken their petite offerings exclusively offline in recent years. The petite lines that do exist rarely represent the best quality that fashion has to offer (with some notable exceptions).
From a market perspective, this is surprising, given that the average American woman is slightly under 5'4" inches tall, according to CDC census data. Worldwide, women are even shorter. Yet, most clothes continue to be made for & modeled by substantially taller women. This means the average woman will struggle to find clothes that fit her, and petite women will struggle more.
If you’re a savvy short-girl shopper with some time on your hands, you’ve probably learned to cope in a world of fashion built for women who are larger than you. You know what “regular sized” cuts look best on you, and you know which brands offer pants with inseams under 28 inches. You may even have a local alterations shop on speed dial. Overall, you’re managing to look fabulous and tailored every day, even in a world that isn’t measured for your body.
The Petite Bias is Real, From Work Performance to Maternity Wear
As a small person and a female, you’re used to being underestimated in your career. Condescending descriptors like “cute” and “feisty”, and regular comments about your small size suggest that you’re somehow seen as less adult than your colleagues because of your height. You understand that getting ahead means performing better and looking more professional than any man or very tall woman you work with. Despite these challenges, you still find a way to kill it at your job. You even come to appreciate the “professional armor” a great suit or beautifully tailored dress can provide - a sort of visual symbol of your professionalism and power.
Then you get pregnant...
I remember the sideways glances that started after I announced my pregnancy at work. The internal monologue from many colleagues was almost audible. “Well, you’re going to be fairly worthless for the next 9 months, gone for 3 months, and then checked out for the rest of your career. Great.” I was the boss, and I knew my staff counted on me. I had high expectations for my own work performance and consistency. Self-doubt started whispering almost as quickly. “Can I still do a good job while I’m exhausted and sick? What if I lose traction and get passed over for a promotion? What if a man really is more suited to this job than me - a man will never be pregnant!” All of this is nonsense of course, and speaks to the deeper problem that our society severely undervalues the jobs of pregnancy and motherhood (ahem, it’s why all of us exist). Recent research points to the detrimental impact this very real pressure can have on the health of both mother and baby. For me, the combined pressures of being a pregnant, short bosslady made the armor of great workwear feel even more necessary than usual. I decided it was worth the investment to keep up my high standards of professional dress during maternity and nursing, so I started shopping online.
Before long, I came to a surprising realization. High-end office dresses and quality work pants just aren’t made for petite pregnant women. A handful of companies carry “standard” sized maternity workwear, but the selection is small and often more business-casual than business-business. Try finding something in workwear for petite women, and you will be quickly disappointed. Why? Does the fashion industry presume that no one who is short and pregnant is also professionally successful?
Making Maternity Wear for Petite Women is Inclusive and Good Business
While the average US woman is slightly under 5’4” tall, Hispanic and Asian Americans are closer to 5’1”. Overall height has decreased nearly a centimeter since the CDC’s previous findings in 2000.
According to the Pew Research Center, 86% of US women are mothers by the age of 44, meaning that the vast majority of women will need maternity and breastfeeding clothes in their lifetimes. Many of us will take the maternity journey several times.
Women have overtaken men in their acceptance to 4-year universities, are ascending to greater professional heights, and waiting until later in life to have children. It is no longer a given that we’ll leave our careers when we have children as it was in past decades, and even those of us who would prefer to stay at home with our young children are often unable to do so for economic reasons.
So, women are shorter than we were 20 years ago, most us are having a baby (or babies), and we are occupying more and more important positions that require better work clothes while we're pregnant. Knowing all this, how is it possible that maternity workwear sized for petite women is nearly impossible to find?
Had someone told me 10 years ago that I would one day be the CEO of a fashion company, I would have laughed, a lot. I was a longtime principal and education director who absolutely loved my work and had no intention of changing my career path. But something shifted when I bumped up against this ludicrous, and fixable, barrier facing petite professional women like myself. Despite my utter lack of experience, and the very real financial risk involved in starting a fashion line of any sort, I decided that equitable opportunities for women -particularly short ones - couldn’t exist if we continued to go without necessities like professional clothing that acknowledges our biological reality. MARION, my sustainable maternity workwear brand, was born about 7 months later.
Petite Maternity Wear is a Priority at MARION
Petite model is 5'2" and wearing our Petite White Collar TENCEL Maternity & Nursing Blouse and our petite-friendly Sloan Maternity Pencil Skirt.
I originally considered making MARION a petite-exclusive maternity office wear brand. After all, they say write what you know, and I deeply understood the experience of short pregnant women. In my maternity shopping process, though, I had noticed a need for more quality maternity work clothes in all sizes. So, in order to meet the needs of a larger group of working mamas, MARION is now a "standard" maternity brand that prioritizes our petite collection. All of MARION’s designs are either offered in petite and standard sizes, or are petite-friendly, meaning the styles suit a petite frame while also working for taller women. We recently launched our PETITE Collection page to take the guesswork out of shopping for our petite clientele - if it's on the page, it's good for short shoppers. The collection includes petite maternity and breastfeeding dresses, petite maternity pants and skirts, suits, petite-friendly maternity leggings and jeans, petite-friendly maternity and nursing tanks, and the list goes on.
We aim for timelessness in our design. We favor classic and minimal silhouettes, which always look better on a petite frame. We love making v-necks, ¾ length sleeves, and knee-length dresses that flatter women of short stature. We design petite maternity maxi dresses that smaller women won’t trip over, and petite nursing tops that end at the hip, rather than cascading to mid-thigh on our short mamas-to-be.
Our work doesn’t stop there, though. This coming spring, we’ll be partnering with Hemster to offer one complimentary alteration per workwear purchase, so a petite mama’s sleeves, hems, cuffs, and straps can be adjusted to suit her exact measurements. No need for an alteration shop on speed dial anymore, at least during pregnancy.
We’re thrilled to say that, so far, nearly 40% of MARION’s customers come for our petite line. It’s deeply gratifying to see so many petite mamas finally find their pregnancy & breastfeeding fit! My sincere hope is that MARION (and like minded companies that follow) can remove the stress of work wear for short mamas who have too much on their plates already.
I'm done having babies and won't be able to use my own line during pregnancy, though I do regularly wear dresses from our “maternity & mama” styles that look great postpartum. Despite the fact that petite maternity & breastfeeding work clothes didn’t yet exist when I needed them, it's gratifying to be able to meet a very real need for thousands of pregnant professionals across the globe.
Short mamas, we see you, and we have your clothes.
Petite model is 5'2" and wearing the petite-friendly Louie Striped Knit Maternity & Mama Dress
About the Author:
Joy O’Renick is bio mama to two beautiful toddler boys, and adopted mama to an amazing 24-year-old son. She, her husband Miles, and their youngest sons live on a mini farm in Oregon where they grow food, play in the woods, and host board game nights. Joy is a longtime education leader who has worked in various communities from South Los Angeles to rural Oregon. Her experience as a working new mom (and her struggles to get dressed for work during pregnancy & nursing!) led her to found MARION.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Health Statistics Reports, December 20, 2018.
- Forbes Magazine, “Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace Affects Mother and Baby Health.”
- Pew Research Center “They’re Waiting Longer, but U.S. Women Today More Likely to Have Children Than a Decade Ago.”