Small is chic in the downscaled '90s


August 22, 1993|By Mary Corey

Perhaps Walt Disney said it best:

It's a small world, after all.

Just stroll through any grocery store, glance at any fashion magazine or buy any electronic gadget, and you'll understand: Things have shrunk.

Oreos, artwork, shoulder pads, snack food, computers, even paychecks.

The list goes on. In the dour, downscaled '90s, nearly everything, it seems, has been reduced in size.

"The Bridges of Madison County," a wisp of a book at 3 by 5 inches and less than 200 pages, climbs the best-seller list. Five-foot-3-inch basketball star Tyrone Bogues becomes the small man's sports hero, leading the Charlotte Hornets to their first NBA playoff appearance this year. And that icon of the '90s -- the cellular phone -- now fits handily in your shirt pocket.

We have entered the trial-size era. Bigger isn't better, or so we rationalize. Small is chic.

Scaling back certainly suits the times. In theory at least, thinking small -- or making do with less -- is environmentally conscious, politically correct and economical. It also suits the speed at which we live our lives.

"One of the major trends in America is that people love pace," says Watts Wacker, a futurist with Yankelovich Partners Inc., a marketing, research and consulting company in Westport, Conn. Small means quick. We like having more choices, accumulating more stuff. Miniaturization allows you to store it and deal with it.

"Small also feels unencumbered. It's only the nub, the streamlined part of something. It allows us to have everything highly concentrated and at its essence."

Nowhere is that more evident than in the supermarket. Up and down the aisles, it's as if products have spawned smaller versions of themselves overnight. There are Ritz Bits and Nutter Butter Bites, mini muffins and bagelettes. In addition, candy bars, brownies, yogurt and spring water all come in tiny, portable packs.

"These cater to the health-conscious lifestyle we're trying to lead," says Mike Regina, a buyer for Sutton Place Gourmet. "There's this part of our brain that tells us a few little Oreos are better for us than one normal size."

But it's more than just a snack-food trend.

"Almost across the board, from coffee to candy to snacks to even oils and vinegars, the types of food we sell have developed smaller packaging," says Mr. Regina.

Which is a far cry from five years ago when the jumbo candy bar, jumbo tin of popcorn and jumbo bag of chips were the rage. Today the 1-pound box of chocolates -- not the 5-pounder -- is the norm at Sutton Place, with two-piece samplers and 1-ounce bars also finding an audience.

Mr. Wacker explains it in simple terms.

"People are just tired of not having enough fun," he says. "Small is fun and cute. So much of life is about having the kid beaten out of you. This gives you the sense of wonder and bemusement we all had as children."

Similarly, many cookbooks now come in tinier formats. In fact, Chronicle Books came out with a whole series of little cookbooks (4 by 6 inches) earlier this year. The trend, some observers believe, says more about the industry than the times.

"The market is so cluttered for cookbooks that publishers are eager to distinguish their books from others," says Roger M. Williams, director of public affairs for the Association of American Publishers in Washington. "You need something that not only is different but looks different."

In electronics, though, small equals portable. And a glut of consumer products in the '80s has paved the way for more compact, refined versions in the '90s.

There's the TV/VCR you can hold in the palm of your hand. The computer notebook that slips into your briefcase. The featherweight camera.

"In everything from compact disc players to home computers, a product first comes out as a larger unit with basic features. Then as the technology gets better, it becomes smaller and more portable and the price decreases," says Cynthia Upson, staff vice president for the Electronic Industry Association, a trade group based in Washington.

For instance, when camcorders first hit the market, they weighed around 8 pounds. Now some camcorders have been Jenny Craiged to one quarter their former selves.

And there's the cellular phone.

"They used to fit in briefcases, but they were bulky. Now they can fit into a small pocketbook," Ms. Upson says. "As much as people talk about couch potatoes, we're not a nation that stays at home. Whether we're commuting to work or traveling on vacation, we like to have that technology at our fingertips wherever we might be going."

The world of fashion has also taken a liking to the petite.

After the big shoulders and big hair of the '80s, it was logical to assume the pendulum would swing toward the small.

And it has. Teardrop earrings have replaced shoulder dusters. ,, Compacts look like they could have been made by Tinkerbell. And knapsacks, once so bulky they induced backaches, are now tinier than handbags.

"There's certainly a much smaller proportion happening in fashion today," explains Sharon Graubard, creative director of Tobe/the Next Step, a fashion forecasting publication in New York. "When you have something big on, everyone notices. You can't wear it as long. Small is more human."

Similarly in home design, collections of miniature objects -- including picture frames, boxes and mannequins -- are finding a following.

But the small trend isn't about possessions; it's about life, says Baltimore interior designer Carol Siegmeister.

"It's about the '90s," she says. "Everything is minimal, skim the fat and keep it simple."

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