How to Style Big Clothes For Petite Bodies

Model wearing an oversized sweater from Petite Studio

Petite Studio

If the spring 2023 runways are any indication, the oversized trend is not over. Between the return of the 1980s shoulder, the continued rise of cargo pants and long, baggy jeans, and the renewed commitment to the exaggerated proportions served up by supersized blazers, maxi skirts, and drop-waisted dresses, large clothing isn’t leaving anytime soon.

Big things may come in small packages, but small people can end up looking ridiculous when packaged in oversized outfits. When it comes to petite people wearing big clothes, a spectrum exists: At one end are Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, the owners of high-end fashion line The Row. Clocking in at around 5’ 2”, both are small in stature, and possess a sartorial predisposition towards long, loose layers (which on them, still ends up looking clean and tailored). At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is a little kid playing dress up in their parents’ clothing.

Neil J. Rodgers, a former red carpet and photo stylist, and current owner of a brand focusing on creating luxury accessories for everyday wear, thinks the trend toward oversized clothing emerged in reaction to and as a subversion of what people expect the female body to look like. “It’s sort of like saying ‘mind your own business about my body,’” he tells me. And thankfully, Rodgers and the other fashion experts I spoke to think petite people can absolutely incorporate the oversized trend into their wardrobes—with a few caveats. 

Meet the Expert

  • Neil J. Rodgers is a luxury fashion designer of his own eponymous label. Previously, he worked as a red carpet and photo stylist.
  • Jenny Howell is the designer of Petite Studio, an independent fashion brand focused on high-quality pieces for the petite market.

Petite History

Petite fashion might not exist today if it weren’t for the military. Prior to the 1940s, women’s clothing was constructed without any sizing nuance, and designer Hannah Troy remembers watching women struggle to fit into clothes that weren’t designed with their bodies in mind. "I was at a May Company store in California when I noticed women pulling at their shoulders and waistlines and saw that most dresses didn't fit properly," she said of this time in the late ‘40s.

When World War II arrived, women volunteered to contribute to the war efforts and the Army recorded their sizes. By studying these measurements, Troy deduced that designers were creating clothing that fit only 8% of women—most of whom were built with shorter waists. So she adjusted fashion’s standardized proportions and created a new category that she referred to as “petite.” (Her other career highlights include introducing Americans to Italian fashion, and helping to mainstream the tent dress silhouette in the 1960s.)

The specifics regarding Troy’s revolutionary sizing may have died with her in 1993, but the need for diverse sizing lives on. Considering that the petite category is intended to cater to those 5’ 4” and under and the average American woman is approximately 5' 4” tall, it shouldn’t be difficult to find clothing to fit those of us who are vertically compact. And yet, most brands don’t offer petite sizing, and those that do aren’t always adjusting their designs to reflect real petite proportions.

Styling Big Clothes For Small People

This was the vacuum that Jenny Howell, founder and CEO of Petite Studio, a slow fashion indie brand focused on making high-quality pieces for the petite market, hoped to fill. Howell launched Petite Studio in 2016 because she felt brands were missing the point with petite proportions. “Everything felt like just a shrunk down version of the regular sizes,” Howell writes in an email. “We petites need to have the right measurement and fit to look our best, and this means having cropped pants that actually look cropped on us.”

But how do you evaluate petite sizing when it comes to baggy or oversized clothing, a style whose innate purpose is to disguise, rather than enhance, the body? To participate in today’s oversized trends, Howell says all petites need to do is pay attention to basic elongating and flattering fashion principles. And in this case, the most important principle to adhere to is that of moderation.

Employ An Isolationist Philosophy

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once isn’t just the title of one of 2022’s most beloved films—because of the way trends are disseminated through technology and social media, it’s also the way we approach modern fashion. “There is no monoculture anymore” says Rodgers. But while taller people can look great rocking an oversized look from top to toe, Rodgers recommends that petites restrict themselves to one statement piece.

“If you break your body into sections, the way you might when composing a photograph,” he says, “pick one section and dress that in an oversized way.” The styling works best when you use the smallest parts of your body to offset the roomy proportions of the larger piece, so if you’re wearing an oversized blazer, Rodgers suggests pairing it with something “where the shape of your legs is visible.” Howell agrees and recommends employing the same policy for accessories. “If you have a big blazer, pair it with smaller earrings and a smaller bag to achieve the contrast,” she says. For bags, she advocates opting for softer fabrics, like canvas or imitation leather. “These fabrics make the bag look more flowy and breathable to prevent it from looking and feeling too heavy.”

Petites can even participate in trends like over-the-knee boots, which may seem outside our purview, given that many of us don’t offer much in the way of leg length. For this trend, Howell recommends forgoing a short skirt in favor of tight pants. “You've only got one layer above the knees,” she explains, “so it creates an elongating effect.”

For the Face

But what about oversized glasses? I reached out to Marchon Eyewear, whose brands include established luxury names like Lanvin, Calvin Klein, DKNY, and Longchamp, as well as up-and-coming brands like Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James, to ask how people with small faces should approach shopping for frames. And as it turns out, when it comes to styling large glasses, one size—or shape—does not fit all.

For those with smaller faces who still love the look of a dramatic frame, Marchon recommends shapes like rectangles, ovals, and cat-eyes, as these look more proportionate on small heads (provided you choose a style that is “as wide or slightly wider than your face”). Deeper squares, butterfly shapes, and frames that are bold or chunky are dangerous for small faces, as they’re designed to over-exaggerate the size of the frame.

Face shape also plays a role. Round faces look better in rectangles, squares, aviators, or geometric shapes. Square faces shine in round frames, cat eyes, wayfarers, aviators, and ovals. Angular faces should stay away from rectangles and ovals, and oval faces are lucky in that they work with almost everything. Many brands offer petite frame sizes, and if you choose to order online, Marchon recommends looking for a lens that falls between 50mm and 54mm. And if you’re still struggling to figure out what works with your head shape and size, take advantage of brands that offer virtual try-ons.

We might not possess the fashion sense (or the finances) of the Olsen twins, but oversized fashion is definitely within all of our grasp (even for those of us with shorter arms). And ultimately, the only fashion rules that really matter are the ones that work for you. As Howell advises, “Do what makes you feel best, and your confidence will shine through.”

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