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The dress is back -- with a new attitude

June 30, 2007|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

For decades, the American woman was faithful to pants. A few years ago she started flirting again with skirts. Now, almost a century after hemlines started rising off the floor, she is back in the arms of the dress.

But not just any dress. If it's forgiving of ample bottoms, or better yet, can be worn over a pair of jeans, retailers can hardly keep it in stock.

"It is a period of unprecedented growth," said Marshal Cohen, an analyst with market research firm NPD Group, which recently reported that sales of dresses soared to $5 billion in the 12 months that ended April 30. Dress sales were up 30%, while sales for all women's apparel rose just 5%.

The experts have many theories about what's driving the trend, as do the people actually wearing the garments. This much is known: A dress in 2007 isn't viewed simply as a dress but as a timesaver that spares a woman the chore of matching separates in the dark of an early-morning closet, as well as a friend that can camouflage her flaws.

"So many of the styles are empire with the A-line that covers the big butt, which is definitely a good thing," said Laura Kessler, 52, a creative director who lives in Burbank and no longer wears only pants. Beyond that, "there's just something really feminine about wearing a dress; it feels girlie and fun. I'm loving it that dresses have come back."

The return of capacious baby doll and swing styles can be traced to the fall fashion shows, where runway models wore roomy dresses, sometimes atop skinny jeans or tights. The designers' partisans at the likes of Target Corp. and H&M then brought the look to the majority of women who weigh more than runway models.

Fashion houses didn't cook up the idea on their own. They were, as usual, prodded by the changing attitudes of women themselves, which in some ways have come full circle.

More than 30 years ago, trousers moved to the front of the closet as women decided they wouldn't be hemmed in by skirts, and schools and offices began lifting the ban on pants as proper female attire. Career women in particular saw slacks as somehow more authoritative than dresses and skirts.

Today, many consider a dress as powerful as a pantsuit and entirely appropriate for the job, with the added benefit of being versatile enough to move into the evening.

"It's about the new form of female empowerment, which is feminine, and embracing all the power we have as women," said Debra Stevenson, president of Skyline Studios, a brand development consulting firm in Los Angeles that has been tracking the dress fad. "Apparel trends, consumer trends in general, are definitely a reflection of where the culture at large is at any given moment."

Then, of course, there is the bare-leg phenomenon. Not only in sunny L.A. but across the country, pantyhose are no longer de rigueur, thanks in part to celebrities' preference for nude appendages.

On HBO's "Sex and the City," for example, Sarah Jessica Parker "always wore her Manolo Blahniks barelegged," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn. "I would guarantee you, no 24-year-old you know knows how to put on a pair of pantyhose without running them."

Older women may know how to avoid getting a run in their pantyhose, but they still don't want to wear them. The one-piece alternative to nylon stockings, popularized in the '60s, has been kicked aside by self-tanning lotions, leg makeup, specialists in spider-vein removal and women's increasing willingness to ask, so my legs aren't perfect, so what?

"I absolutely cannot stand to wear pantyhose in any way, shape or form," said Gail Millan, 50, a Beverly Hills resident who recently added a pink eyelet shift to her expanding collection of dresses. "Now that it's OK to be barelegged, I'm much happier about wearing skirts and dresses."

(Just to confuse things, NPD Group reported that in the same 12 months that dress sales soared, sales of sheer hose and tights were up too. One explanation: Not everyone is ready to bare her calves, let alone her thighs, and pantyhose, especially the control-type variety, can rein in many imperfections.)

Some retailers were caught off guard by the strength of the demand for dresses.

"We had no idea what this phenomenon was going to bring to the table," said Carly Willis, a buyer for Satine, a Los Angeles boutique where sales of jeans, trousers, skirts and even shorts are down by comparison. "This is taking the bottom out of every other category right now" and denim, Willis added, has slipped into "a recession."

Teens are buying dresses that are "sexy, short and cute," NPD Group's Cohen said in an e-mail. And they don't recall ever having worn such an article of clothing, though they have seen photos of themselves in dresses as toddlers, he said. "They claim they discovered the dress."

As for baby boomers, Cohen said, they favor dresses that are feminine, fuller and "comfy."

At Tommy Bahama's women's division, dress sales have risen about 200% and now account for about 9% of revenue, compared with 3% at the same time last year, said Lynne Koplin, the division president.

Belts have become an essential accessory because they can quickly transform the way a dress looks. Michael Boyd, a spokesman for Nordstrom Inc., called the dress "the new uniform."

Metchek, a longtime observer of women's apparel, said she was struck recently by the fact that the women at El Floridita Restaurant in Los Angeles were doing the salsa in clothes that moved with them.

"I didn't see a single pair of jeans on the dance floor," she said. "I saw legs again. It was very nice."

But don't blink. It's anybody's guess when the caprice of fashion will declare that dresses are out. Probably when your closet is full of them.

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