Problems and Solutions to Buying Clothes for Small People
by Christopher Woodward
January 2003


Table of Contents

1: Current clothing situation for a short, slim man
2: Debenhams Success Story
3: Concerns about the future
4: How to solve the problem
5: Setting up small adults clothing stores
6: Conclusion

Is everything in the shops too big for you?

If the answer is YES then you are just like me. I have the under-appreciated problem of being short at 5' 5". I am thin as well. I know many people complain about not being able to find clothes that fit well, but for the majority of people who are within the normal range of heights, it is simply a question of which in-stock size to purchase.

Finding adult clothes that fit can be a difficulty if you're a man who is 5' 6" or under and also of a slim build.

1: Current clothing situation for a short, slim man

For men under 5' 6" who are also of a slim build the only real option is to buy the 'Small' sizes in any men's department. Buying trousers can be particularly difficult if clothing stores don't sell your waist size. The waist literally has to fit properly or the trousers simply will not stay on. A belt is a helpful accessory when trousers are slightly too loose, but once you're wearing trousers with a waist size of more than a few inches too big, then wearing a belt will simply become uncomfortable and impractical. It will also make the individual look frumpy, and the trousers will inevitably tend to dangle down. The dangling down exacerbates the problems with leg lengths being too long for a short man, whilst thin legs will also make the trouser legs look baggy. True, you can go to a tailor and get the waist or leg length altered. However, this means paying more money for your trousers than an average sized person. Whatever you have done, a tailor cannot adjust the general proportions of the trousers to fit your size, which is really what a small man needs in order to look good.

For myself, buying trousers used to be a real difficulty. Fortunately for me, I have recently put on some weight, which means I can now wear size 30 waist trousers comfortably with a belt. A used to have to wear size 28 waist trousers, which meant spending extra money getting the waist altered. However, even finding a 30 inch waist, short leg length can be difficult, since most stores stock fewer of the smallest and largest sizes available.

Buying a suit or a formal jacket can also be a particularly difficult problem for a short or small man. A formal jacket is useless unless it fits very well. People wear formal jackets when they want to make the best possible impression (i.e. job interviews). However, if you're very small, the only way to buy a suit or formal jacket that fits is to get one tailor made. Last year I found myself unable to buy a suit off the peg. A 34 inch chest tailor made suit cost me 400, double the cost of a suit off the peg.

Considering that a short man is taken less seriously than his taller counterparts because of false perceptions, which badly need challenging, the need for well fitting clothes is even more important and essential than for a taller man. Much of the opportunity a short man has to made a good first impression is in the clothes that he wears. Tall men tend to make good impressions regardless of what they wear.

Buying jumpers, shirts or outdoor jackets is difficult enough, though easier than buying suits. For this type of clothing, the usual smallest size available in most stores is a 'Small' 35-37 inch chest size. Personally, I find that I typically have to try on a few garments before I buy, since there are so many variations in how small a 'Small' size really is. A common problem for any short man is that it's difficult to find anything where the sleeve lengths fit properly. For a short man who is also a slim build, getting the right sleeve length is even harder because you are likely to find that the shoulders are too narrow and that the shoulder areas dangle down onto the top of your arm. The garment will look even worse if the sleeve widths are too wide and baggy. Although tight fitting clothing can be uncomfortable, wearing clothes that are too baggy can equally make you look rather frumpy, and not your best. Currently, baggy clothing is the fashion for young people. However, for the small adult male, this can exacerbate the problem because his ill-fitting clothes will also look rather juvenile on him, making him even less likely to be taken seriously.

A similar problem for a small man when buying outdoor coats, is that the waist area is often too large. I have to hunt around for one where the elastic has been tightened enough to fit me. With a longer winter coat, there are usually strings inside that allow the waist to be pulled tight. Tightening these can help to reduce the bagginess and give an adequate fit. However, a short, summer jacket does not normally have this. I managed to find a coat where the waist does fit, but the choice was limited.

2: Debenhams Success Story

So if you're a small man, to get something to fit well you have to go from shop to shop searching. However, your hunting can occasionally pay off. Here's a brief story about my personal experience of buying shirts:

I used to buy my shirts, size 14.5 collar, from British Home Stores (BHS). However, at one point, when I looked in a mirror to see how I looked in the back, I found that they really were too big. The waist area, the chest area, the shoulder widths, the sleeve length and width, were all too large for me. Only the collar fit fine. Despite the claim on the packaging that the shirt would fit chesta 'up to 36 inches' and waista 'up to 30 inches', it wouldn't fit a small man of that size.

I decided to look around in other shops to see which ones sold the smallest shirts. The problem here is that you cannot try on a shirt that is sold in a package whilst you're in the shop. You have to take it home, and if it doesn't fit, bring it back with the receipt. I decided to buy one packaged shirt from Debenhams, primarily to try on. They made 14.5 collar sizes in a 36 inch chest and 32 inch sleeve lengths. Most other stores sell their smallest size shirts with a 33 or 34 inch sleeve length. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried on my new Debenhams shirt. It fit very well. The shoulder lengths and widths, the sleeve length and widths and the waist and chest areas were all smaller than the equivalent shirt in BHS, even though they were supposed to be the same size on the packaging (BHS did not give sleeve lengths, though). Now, I've decided I'll give all my BHS shirts to charity shops and replace them with Debenhams shirts. Well Done Debenhams!

3: Concerns about the future

Occasionally, the media reports that the human race is becoming taller and heavier, and shops therefore need to add larger sizes to their current range. Whilst it is certainly true that at least in the US and Western Europe, humans are getting heavier, the average height has actually levelled off during the past two generations. Nonetheless, many still believe we are becoming taller and, unless something is done, will mean that finding clothes to fit will become even harder for a short man.

If there are a decreasing number of small people like myself, there will be less demand for small sizes, so the manufacturers will decide to stop making the smallest sizes currently available. This has already started happening. A shop assistant in a suit store told me that the manufacturers used to make 34 inch chest suit jackets but have now stopped making that size, due to low demand.

Currently, finding clothes to fit a man who is around 5' 5" to 5' 6" is often difficult but not impossible. For someone, such as Steve Goldsmith, the editor of the Short Person's Support website, who is 5'2" tall, buying clothes that fit in a department store already is simply impossible. At times I get very concerned that in say, 20 or 30 years time, clothes that are currently sized as 'Medium' will become the 'Small' sizes of tomorrow. Yes there would of course be smaller sizes available in boys departments, but for myself at least, buying boys clothing is out of the question.

No adult of any size should be expected to buy children's clothing, for several reasons:

If manufacturers start to further increase the smallest sizes they make, so that the current smallest men's jackets, shirts, and other garments all become a size larger than they currently are, then a small man like myself is going to start finding clothes shopping virtually impossible. The only thing I could do is to get my clothes tailor-made made, which would be very difficult for me to afford. This is my real concern about the future.

4: How to solve the problem

There is no reason why anyone should ever have a problem buying clothes that fit, whatever their size. Ultimately, the problems for very short, thin, or indeed tall and overweight people are one of the consequences of capitalism. I have nothing against the use of businesses in providing the services we need and want. However the real problem is that the clothing industry is run entirely through free-market businesses and this is not right. Businesses care far more about making a profit than about catering to individual's needs. They therefore only sell adults clothing in sizes that they know will be profitable. People who are well below or above the average sizes, suffer. Clothing is a basic human need, and we shouldn't have to rely on profit-making companies to provide for this need. There needs to be some safeguards put in place to ensure that small people, who may have no option but to get their clothes tailor-made because of their size, do not have to pay excessively high costs for decent clothing. There are already many stores that sell clothing specifically for big and tall men, such as High and Mighty, Bank's Big and Tall Menswear etc. It is time now for short and small people to have exactly the same choices of clothing available, for the same costs, as average or larger people. Setting up more short men's clothing stores would be helpful, but ultimately, radical as it may sound, there needs to be a degree of government involvement in the clothing industry.

I am not in any way suggesting that the whole clothing business should become part of the public sector, but there are various ways the government could be involved specifically to help those with clothing needs that cannot be met through the profit making private sector. Here are two possible options.

I cannot see any reason at all why one of the above options, or an alternative government scheme, could not be introduced as an Act of Parliament. Considering how much it costs to fund the National Health Service, the emergency and defence service and other areas of the public sector, the costs of this would be minimal and barely noticeable to the taxpayer.

5: Setting up small adults clothing stores

Whilst a state-subsidised scheme designed to cater to extra small and extra large sized people would be the ideal solution to our problem, and something that should be our ultimate aim, in tackling this area of size discrimination, there is nothing to stop us from taking other action in the meantime.

In Brighton, for instance, there are several big men's shops including High and Mighty and Banks Big and Tall Menswear. But there are no stores that cater especially for extra short or slim fitting sizes, which is really what many of us need. I think the reason for this might be that big people have a more urgent need, as everyone must wear something. If you simply cannot get into anything in the shops then you literally need something made extra large to be provided for you. So people have gone on to make a business out of selling extra large clothing. The problem is that for small people, the so-called solutions to not finding small enough sizes are to go and buy something in the children's section, or to accept loose fitting clothes. After all, at least you can still get into them. Both ideas though, are not justifiable solutions when you think about them.

Therefore, an obvious way to help ourselves is to set up more businesses that cater for shorter and slimmer people. Although there are a few American stores that specialise in short men's clothing, they are very hard to use for someone who lives outside the USA. There are some online stores. However, most people would rather try on clothing before buying, and this is only possible in a shop.

An alternative solution we could consider is to set up a volunteer network of clothing tailors and manufacturers who are willing to manufacture specially tailored clothing for free, or for a reduced charge. This would probably be difficult to set up though. We would need to find volunteer tailors for a start, and they would probably be only able to make a limited selection of clothing. They could most easily be made to operate on just a local level. However several local volunteer networks in different local areas would at least go someway towards helping short and small people.

Setting up a new company or voluntary organisation is a challenging job for anyone though, so the real, ultimate solution to the problem is through government intervention.

6: Conclusion

Discrimination against smaller people in buying clothes does not have to continue. We need as many people as possible to recognise that this problem exists and to take action to do something about it. This applies where ever in the world we live. We need to write to our politicians, write to our national and local press, and campaign to the media to take on and debate this issue (along with other short person's issues), take part in radio phone-ins, and spread our message to as much of the public as possible.

If you wish to comment on my essay, e-mail me at christopher.woodward2@ntlworld.com

Christopher Woodward