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Skirts out, frocks in: how women are dressing up

When it comes to making an impact, few items of clothing can compete with a dress.

Whether it's a red carpet showstopper, a gown for an inauguration ball or an everyday dress to wear to work, the killer frock is a guaranteed attention-grabber.

Its ability to make an impression is reflected in the fact that sales of dresses have soared 20 per cent over the last three years, with about 66 per cent of women aged 16 to 24 buying dresses in 2010, up from 46 per cent in 2007, according to research by Mintel.

Dresses have dominated the catwalks for much of this period, with the "statement dress" – often a short, embellished cocktail style – attracting numerous copies.

Memorable designs include Lanvin's short ruffled orange dress from spring/summer 2008, Balmain's green sequinned cocktail style from spring/summer 2009 and Gucci's tea dresses from spring/summer 2006. Of course, the dress never fell out of fashion. But there was certainly a renewed emphasis on it, and it was reinvented to suit numerous different occasions, from smart to casual.

While jeans and a decorative top were de rigueur for a night out until about six years ago, and wearing a dress was deemed old-fashioned and too smart, the trend for vintage clothes was one factor in making the dress cool again. Celebrities were also integral to the dress's rehabilitation, from Lily Allen in vintage ballgowns teamed with chunky sports trainers to Kate Moss in small retro tea dresses, which she later produced for her clothing range at Topshop. Kate Middleton has also been seen wearing an array of dresses, from a Topshop patterned dress to the blue Issa dress she wore for the royal engagement photos. Apart from the fact that the garment was daringly low, it looked far less formal than the bright blue skirt suit worn by Princess Diana when she and Prince Charles announced their engagement in 1981.

It might seem strange that spending on dresses would increase during a recession, but they require little thought, are versatile and the same garment can be dressed up or down for different occasions. According to Mintel, the clothing market for those aged 16 to 24 has also seen solid growth despite the recession, increasing by 17 per cent between 2005 and 2010 to stand at £10bn, outperforming the overall clothing market.

Tamara Sender, senior fashion analyst at Mintel, said: "This growth has been driven by a increasing fashion for dresses, with 2010 seeing a boom in styles such as maxi dresses, which this generation would not already own and therefore would need to add to their wardrobe.

"Skirt purchasing, however, has suffered as a result of this and also because of the trend towards wearing leggings more often, which can often be worn together with certain styles of dress, but less commonly used with skirts."

Without the financial demands of mortgages and families, this age group is able to keep up with the rapid pace at which modern fashion trends emerge. Suzanne Pendlebury, a buyer at Harvey Nichols, said: "Previously our younger shoppers would shop more leisurewear brands for premium denim and luxury basics, such as fashion tees and loungewear. Today's shopper is far more aspirational."

However, this fashion-aware group should know that despite the popularity of dresses, trousers have recently stolen their thunder when it comes to high fashion. For autumn/winter 2010 labels such as Chloe, Celine and Stella McCartney all put the trouser centrestage, and this season wide palazzo pants are a key trend, along with maxi and midi skirts and shirts.