The ability of dresses and jeans to perform double duty, alternating between dress and casualwear, helped provide both categories with double-digit sales increases last year and lift the growth rate of women’s apparel above men’s wear’s.

This story first appeared in the April 24, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Women’s apparel sales at retail grew 3.3 percent last year, expanding to $111.37 billion, according to research from The NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, N.Y. By contrast, men’s apparel sales rose 1.4 percent to $56.61 billion.

The results from 2012 mark a reversal of direction for the genders as men’s wear sales in 2011 rose 4.2 percent to $55.82 billion while women’s wear sales were up a more modest 1.5 percent to $107.87 billion. Men’s wear’s softness last year was underlined by a 6.6 percent dip in tailored clothing sales, to $4.3 billion.

Overall, adult apparel sales last year were up 2.6 percent, to $167.98 billion, slightly more than the 2.4 percent increase registered in 2011, when they hit $163.69 billion.

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The acceleration of women’s buying activity was largely the result of big gains in jeans, sales of which expanded 11 percent to $8.61 billion, and dresses, where volume grew 10.5 percent to $11.81 billion. While jeans came back from a soft 2011, when sales were down 3.9 percent in dollar terms, dresses logged a second consecutive year of double-digit growth, actually slowing down from a 14.7 percent surge in 2011.

“Dresses have been gaining in sales over the past couple of years but the difference of 2012 compared to the previous years is in the way women are wearing them,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, noting a thinning line between casual, dress and weekend wear. “Women sported more dresses on the weekends as casual wear and jeans during the week to work, which helped propel the sales of jeans.”

Reflecting higher prices brought on by increases in the cost of cotton and other commodities, the increase in women’s wear volume came despite declines in both unit sales of women’s apparel, down 1.8 percent, and apparel buying visits at brick-and-mortar stores and online, which fell 6 percent. Online sales of women’s apparel were up 13 percent to $14.3 billion, NPD said. With J.C. Penney Co. Inc. struggling and Kohl’s Corp.’s sales soft, national chains drew less traffic among those seeking women’s clothing while department, specialty and online shopping destinations drew more. The 11 percent increase in women’s jeans sales was driven by a 19 percent surge at specialty stores, the dominant channel of distribution for the classification.

Cohen noted the results “show that women are investing in their wardrobes by buying less, spending more and expecting their clothes to be more versatile. With less disposable income, women are more selective in their purchases so retailers must really try to grab their attention.”

In women’s sportswear, both knit and woven shirts enjoyed 4 percent increases in sales last year, to $23.25 billion and $8.02 billion, respectively, while sweaters slid slightly, dropping 1.3 percent to $10.53 billion.

Men’s softer results came from weak performances in larger classifications that couldn’t be offset by double-digit growth in smaller ones. Knit shirt volume rose 0.6 percent to $12.42 billion while woven shirt sales rose 1.4 percent to $4.59 billion and jeans sales ticked down 0.4 percent to $5.65 billion. However, men’s shorts, active bottoms, underwear bottoms and socks each had dollar increases of at least 11.1 percent and dollar volume of between $2.41 billion and $2.54 billion.

The steep downturn in sales of men’s tailored clothing — including suits, suit separates and sport coats — last year followed a 23.7 percent surge in 2011, to $4.61 billion, that was driven by the rising popularity of the modern suit.