Getting dressed up for work or social occasions is on the rise.

An improved job picture and trend-right fashions are making the American woman dress up more for work and for the evening.

She’s also increasingly shopping for dresses, suits and eveningwear at department stores over specialty and mass merchants, according to the 2006 Where America Shops survey.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they bought dresses, suits and eveningwear in the past year, which is up from 37 percent in the prior year’s survey. Fifty-two percent of the consumers polled said they bought clothes for work, which is up significantly from the prior year’s response rate of 48 percent.

The survey revealed that department stores remained the top pick for this category, garnering 75 percent of the respondents’ votes, while specialty stores had 32 percent of the share and discounters captured 13 percent. Respondents were asked to choose up to five retailers within all of the channels.

The survey also showed that the department store channel experienced the biggest year-over-year gain, rising 11 percentage points, while specialty stores rose 2 points and discounters declined 5 percent.

And, for the second year in a row, J.C. Penney was the number-one choice for dresses, suits and eveningwear among respondents, followed by Macy’s, Dillard’s, Kohl’s and Nordstrom.

Analysts have noted over the past year that an improved job market and employment outlook, coupled with appealing fashion choices, have driven this segment of women’s wear. Dana Telsey, chief executive and chief research officer of Telsey Advisory Group, New York, said the market has experienced an expansion of “occasion dressing.”

Telsey said women are searching for more reasons to dress up. They also are seeking fashions that set them apart. “Differentiation and uniqueness are very important; that’s why we’ve seen so many things with embellishment,” Telsey said. “Anything with decorative accessories really appeals [to consumers]. Given that you can mix and match outfits, whether it’s tops or bottoms, with a solid and then a print or a pattern, the more unique it is, the more appealing. And frankly, retailers can charge higher prices for those items and they earn higher margins on them.”

This story first appeared in the July 10, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Regarding occasion dressing, Telsey said, “Whether weekend wear, business casual or whether it’s formal business, I think that the number of occasions has expanded as to how people think they should dress. That’s the difference.”

Telsey noted there has been “a lot of dresses this season — dresses being very formal or dresses being casual, it’s almost a little bit of mix and match. Really, it’s the customer’s own style that creates the sensibility of formal or informal.”

Retail analyst and consultant Emmanuel Weintraub, of the firm that bears his name, said an increase in a desire to wear dresses is likely cyclical in nature. And it’s not just in women’s wear. “People are dressing up more, absolutely,” he said. “Men and women are going to work in more stylized clothes, and with more tailored looks. We’re at the peak of a cycle.”

How much steam is left in this trend?

“I think that we’re going to see this trend continuing into the fall season,” Telsey predicted. “I think layering, mixing and matching will be a big theme of fall 2006.”

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