When it comes to beating the recession, the dress is the fashion item most likely to satisfy customers as well as retailers.
"Women are buying dresses because they just don't own very many," says June Rau, Nordstrom fashion coordinator.
In recent seasons, she explains, sportswear and separates have dominated designer collections.
The proof is in the sales figures. A recent survey conducted by Women's Wear Daily, a New York-based fashion trade publication, reports sales gains of 15% to 20% at leading department and specialty stores.
"From couture down to budget, the whole industry is touting this as the year of the dress," explains Monica Harri, vice president of Hearts, a Los Angeles maker of dresses priced from about $60 to $90.
Tickets range from more than $1,500 at designer boutiques like Valentino to less than $100 in junior departments around town.
Although dresses have been widely available even during the sportswear frenzy of the '70s and '80s, the narrow range of styles prompted many women to shy away from them, says Jennifer Joanou, a designer and proprietor of her own Los Angeles boutique.
"For so long, all we've seen are dresses with fussy fabrics, elaborate collars, pleated sleeves, prissy trims," Joanou says.
Her aim is to turn out modern dresses with clean, spare silhouettes free of trims and details. Her customer, she says, wants a dress that is suitable for more than church or a wedding.
James Tarantino, whose Los Angeles-based company has been in operation six years, agrees.
"When I would go into a store's dress area, everything was so ugly," he says. As early as four years ago, Tarantino envisioned a dress revival.
His bare-back linen styles in sumptuous shades of mint, cotton candy, coral, white, royal and red are decidedly sexy and not limited strictly to evening wear.
Other styles incorporate beaded trims by L.A. jewelry designer Deanna Hamro.
Nordstrom's Rau says dresses appeal to women this year because they are far less expensive than an ensemble with jacket, blouse and skirt or trousers.
In addition, she suggests, "You can easily change the look of a dress by adding Lucite jewelry one day, silver jewelry the next, a scarf, or a patent leather bag and matching pair of shoes."
Aside from economic and versatility factors, Tarantino sees another benefit--from a male point of view.
"There is something about a dress that brings the whole concept of femininity full circle. It has to do with the way a woman feels when she wears a dress, the way it moves with her when she walks. That is something that doesn't happen when a woman wears a skirt and a jacket."
Joanou sees the dress from a more practical standpoint. Her simple chemises in muted earth tones are designed with an eye toward comfort as well as form and function.
"In the hot summer, women want to be able to put one on, stay cool and not have to hassle with what goes with what," she says.