Back in junior high school days, I towered over all the boys and dreamed about being short. Back in his youth, Bob Stern had to look up to all the girls and dreamed about being tall.
Well, I've come to terms with my height now that I'm older, and Stern, who has more determination than Napoleon, hasn't let his small stature be his Waterloo. Today, this gentleman cuts quite a rug at Men's Fashion Assocation parties. If there's an editor who's as tall as Susan Anton, Stern invites her to boogie. And if dance cards were still popular, his would always be filled. Ladies love this charmer who wears a button on his lapel proclaiming that it's chic to be short (the button's almost as big as he is).Self-conscious about his height? Embarrassed about having to look up to his dancing partners? No way! Stern pulls himself up to his full 5 feet 2 inches and declares that he's proud of his stature. Short men are in vogue these days, he points out. You find them in sports, in the theater, in movies, in business, in politics, in all walks of life.
To spotlight the famous who are 5 feet 8 inches tall and under, the clothing retailer, who owns Short Sizes Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio, began issuing a list of celebrities last year - the "Ten Best-Dressed Shorter Men in America."
Stern dreamed up the idea to stamp out old prejudices and stereotypes. Through the years we've all been led to believe that the successful male has to tower over the rest, that the heroine has to be small and the hero has to be big. And, he declares, it's a bunch of hooey!
Consider the new Olympian of politics, Mike Dukakis, who's 5 feet 8 inches. Or how about a few of the other short men who have hit the heights over the years: Mickey Rooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Ladd, Igor Stravinsky, Truman Capote, King Hussein, John Quincy Adams, Erte, Dudley Moore, Billy Crystal, George Burns . . . .
Those last three were on the first list that was announced last year with great fanfare at a classy diner called Shorty's. Today, Stern still thinks he made some pretty sharp choices. Maybe they didn't fit the perfect model image that dominates the pages of GQ, but they dress to suit their body types, personalities and lifestyles. That's what being chic is all about.
Leading this year's list of winners is Dustin Hoffman (5 feet 6 inches) with his "trendsetter look." Stern says the actor picks his clothes like he picks his roles. And they're out of the ordinary.
Television's Ted Koppel (5 feet 8 inches) made the list with his "buttoned-up look." The ABC newsman is described as looking natty, sharp, ultra-professional, just like his interviews.
The "Broadway look" is exemplified by 5-foot-5 Joel Grey. "As slim, trim and as dynamite in dress as he is on stage."
Computer king H. Ross Perot, 5 feet 7 inches, projects the "magnate look." Stern says Perot proves he's his own man in fashion just as he does in business.
Pat Sajak, who hosts "The Wheel of Fortune," has the "guy next door look." Forget Vanna, his fans say. They'd rather take the 5-foot-7 host for a spin!
Michael Tucker, 5 feet 5 inches, who plays Stuart Markowitz on "L.A. Law," has made short and cuddly lawyers fashionable. He represents the "nolo contendre look."
The "climbing higher look" is illustrated by Michael J. Fox, who appears in the television show "Family Ties." "Last year's yuppie puppie keeps growing - in maturity and dress," Stern says.
From the world of sports comes 5-foot-7 Spud Webb, the slam-dunker who plays with the Atlanta Hawks. According to the Cleveland clothier, Spud's an artist on and off the court.
The "loud but fitting look" could only mean 5-foot-6 Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's sidekick. Shaffer is on the list again because he's so outrageous.
Of course, no best-dressed list could be really complete without someone from the world of fashion. And Ralph Lauren, 5 feet 4 inches, gets the nod. His is the "hall of fame look." And he deserves a lasting niche because he's the ultimate, says Stern.
Average shorties may never become as famous as these celebrities, he says. But they can certainly dress every bit as well. Over his years in business, he has gathered some guidelines for men 5 feet 8 inches and under.
Perhaps the most important clothing guideline has to do with proper proportions. To look right, clothes must be specifically designed to suit the shape you're in - short, extra-short, portly or whatever.
After the basic proportions have been determined, a man must concentrate on proper fit. It's the little things that count - a tuck here, being let out there.
Exaggerated patterns and colors probably should be avoided, but that doesn't mean the more diminutive individual can't wear reasonably sized plaids and designs.
Classic looks make the best fashion sense for almost everyone - short, tall and in between. But, according to Stern, the man who's 5 feet 8 inches and under must be especially wary of overly tight or baggy clothes, gimmicks, fads and extremely dramatic attire.
Beware of cuffs on pants. They can break up the leg line and make you seem even shorter. Three-button coats are overpowering, and pleated slacks and double-breasted coats are OK as long as proportions and fit are correct.
Stern is well-qualified to offer fashion tips. Since 1972, he has been operating his store for short sizes in Cleveland, carrying major brands and designer labels in suits, sport coats, slacks, outerwear and sportswear. Available, too, are neckties scaled down to fall at a shorter man's belt line; sweaters made with shorter sleeves and body lengths, plus dress and sport shirts in hard-to-find 30-, 31- and 32-inch sleeve lengths.
An accountant and lawyer by training, he was employed with the Internal Revenue Service and going to law school by night. He intended to become an attorney. But frustration finally made him change.
"Trying to find clothes that would fit was a nightmare. I often ended up having to pay out a fortune to have things custom-made or suffer the indignity of shopping in the boy's department along with a lot of 14-year-olds," says Stern, whose mother was 4 feet 11 inches and father was 5 feet 7 inches tall.
"I concluded that what the world really needed was a good short-men's clothing store - not another lawyer."
So, after researching the market and discovering it was promising - 20 percent of the male population is under 5 feet 8 inches - he opened his store and began seeking out merchandise that was specifically scaled for the shorter individual. That's one of the real problems of buying in the boy's department, he notes, or in purchasing clothing that has to be downsized. The basic proportions can never be altered and will never look or feel quite right.
He also decided to get into the mail-order business to assist those who didn't live close enough to Cleveland to drop in. The mailing list now is up to 40,000 - and growing. And Stern believes his catalog for short sizes is the only one of its kind in the country today. (For a catalog, send $1 to Short Sizes Inc., 5385 Warrensville Ctr. Road, Cleveland, OH 44137.)
"I'm proud of what we've accomplished so far," he notes. "The short man has been neglected and made to feel like a second-class citizen by the fashion industry for so long."
Salt Laker Doug Osborn, who's 5 feet and 51/2 inches tall, agrees. In most cities, including our own, big and talls take precedence, he says. There are few - if any - places to find apparel specifically designed for the shorter male. And this is especially true if you happen to have slender body proportions.
The portly short man has an easier time of it, says Osborn, who wears a pant with a 28- or 29-inch waist and usually has to have his things custom-made if he wants an outfit that really fits right.
Finding shoes (size 6) has been a problem over the years, too, but it has been even worse to locate socks. They just don't make them proportionately, he complains. Another gripe: Why do retailers put any shirts that could possibly fit a short man on the highest shelf in the store? He can't reach them up there!
Shorties always have faced such problems.
Today, however, some scientists think the picture is changing. Society, they say is slowly evolving - growing taller and larger. If you visit Old Ironsides and go below deck to the living quarters, you'll find yourself bending over all the time. Average sailors back in the early 1800s were around 5 feet 3 inches. And if you go to a museum, many of the costumes our ancestors wore will seem small.
But don't count the chic shorties out just yet. Even if their numbers diminish in the future, the ones who are around probably will exert a strong influence.
"As children, we learned we had to be more vocal to be recognized, more personable to be liked and even more caring and smarter," says Stern.
The big boys had better watch out!