Shopping can be a horror for men short of stature MAN TALK

May 22, 1991|By Robert Cross | Robert Cross,Chicago Tribune

They stand at the racks all through lunch hour, flipping through long rows of jeans, not one pair of which has less than a 34-inch inseam.

They enter some of the finest clothing departments and suddenly become invisible, as sales clerks stare fixedly above their heads.

They stand on the tailor's box for a fitting and walk away in a garment splashed with chalk marks and pierced with more pins than a Saddam Hussein voodoo doll.

They return for the garment, try it on, and still look as if their trousers were fashioned from grocery bags, while the truncated jacket pockets will hold nothing longer than a pack of gum.

They tend to be regular guys in most respects, but their bodies swim in regular sizes. Belt and shirt pocket nearly meet at the bottom of the rib cage. Neckties overlap the fly. Socks bunch up in the toes of their shoes.

In most men's stores, short people got no reason to shop.

A small but growing segment of the men's clothing industry has begun to heed the problem, however, offering clothes expressly designed and proportioned for the short uh ...

"We call them shorter men, not short," said Cleveland clothier Bob Stern, the 5-foot-2-inch president of a thriving mail-order and retail business devoted to the stature-deprived. "It's a little softer way of saying it," he explained. "If you're short, you're short. If you're shorter, it means you're a little shorter than average. There are some sensitivities, you know."

Stern certainly would know. He wears a size 38 extra-short.

Stern was a pioneer in badgering mass producers into thinking small. Before he started Short Sizes Inc. 18 years ago, he had his own suits made by a tailor, while he cajoled clothing makers to sculpt outfits for the shorter male.

"There are certain manufacturers that just won't touch an extra-short," Stern said. "They never have and they never will. Years ago, I would fly into New York just to meet with the Arrow shirt company. They were in the business of making short sizes for quite awhile, but they backed out of it about a year and a half ago. Consequently, we had to put our own private label program together."

Stern issues two catalogs a year to 50,000 customers across the nation. The dapper, graying, short-clothing magnate even appears on a couple of pages in suits by John Weitz, Hart Schaffner & Marx and Tallia.

Citing figures issued in 1980 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Stern believes that about 18 percent of the adult male population could easily fit beneath the 5-foot-8-inch marker near the 7-Eleven store doorway. "About 22 percent of the population is big and tall," he noted. "There's no question it's a bigger market, but it's not that much different."

Still, few stores in the U.S. specialize in shorter sizes, while big-and-tall establishments number in the hundreds. Stern has a ready explanation:

"While the need for a good fit is significant and important for the shorter guy, it's not quite as compelling as it is for the big guy," he said. "If a piece of clothing isn't large enough for the big guy to put on, he doesn't wear it. But a shorter guy can always buy something too big and have it chopped off, or possibly try the boys' department."

Those alternatives never did please the short-but-fastidious. "Boys' shops usually only go to a boy's size 20, which is really like a size 38," Wittmer said. "Plus, the quality is generally pretty junky."

With the Short Men's Apparel Association and the high-volume Short Sizes Inc. casting their influence, manufacturers now churn out sizes they might have considered unthinkable a few years ago.

According to current fashion magazine standards, slacks would drape gracefully down from a slim waist and cascade a bit over the shoe tops. Most men, however, aren't models short men least of all (with the possible exception of Bob Stern and his catalog cast).

"Generally, most short men have a short rise," said Gordon Cohen, the vice president in charge of quality and design at Chicago's Hart Schaffner & Marx. "Say a man measures 30 inches from the crotch to the bottom of the inseam, and 40 inches from the top of the waistband to the bottom of the cuff. That difference is called the rise," Cohen explained.

"In normal men, the rise tends to fall into a certain range of figures. In a short man, that distance must be shortened proportionately. You cannot take a regular trouser and just cut the leg off. That has to be in proportion to the rise. The knee has to be raised. Otherwise, they're not going to fit him at the crotch, or the waist will be too high. They're going to hang down with no shape."

Cohen's employer offers retail customers a wide range of short sizes, and he wants to retain the high-fashion looks or impeccable conservatism in the lower scale as well as at the Gentlemen's Quarterly heights. Shortness, he found, does not add up to perfectly-scaled miniaturization in many cases.

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