New York (CNN)Dresses — the pretty ones worn to work, cocktail hour or anytime a pick-me-up was needed in the “before times” — have been in hiding for the past year.
But the clothing item that has been relegated to the back of people’s closets in the work-from-home era is moving back up. As social activities pick back up, there’s a reason to glam up again. Chains like H&M (HNNMY), Anthropologie (URBN) and Macy’s (M) say they are seeing increased demand for dresses lately and are introducing new styles to try to cash in on pent-up demand.Retailer Anthropologie said demand is back up from its shoppers for dresses for weddings and other social events.The most recent government retail sales numbers show consumers were in a mood to shop in March, as retail sales surged overall, including an 18.3% jump in clothing sales from the previous month.It comes after a brutal year for America’s clothing stores. Clothing sales tumbled 30% in 2020 over the previous year, according to the Census Bureau, as families hunkered down at home. Read MoreNike wants to resell your (lightly) worn shoes in some storesBut who wants to wear last year’s fashion? Consumers are ready to refresh their wardrobes, and that could bring much-needed relief to stores as they try to turn around months of declining sales.Return of proms, weddings and date nights Anthropologie, a popular destination for dresses for everything from weddings to cruises, says it’s begun to notice a shift in consumer behavior. In the last week of February, the retailer said seven of the top-10 selling items on its website were dresses. Previously, over the past year, Anthropologie was lucky if that number was one or two.Two of the most popular summer dresses at Anthropologie are the $198 cotton Somerset Maxi dress, with a smocked waist and printed pattern and the $298 sleeveless cotton Chioma floor-length maxi dress, with side pockets and brightly colored motif. “It’s all about the return to dresses for us right now. We are definitely starting to see our customers’ mindset shift to more celebratory times,” said Anu Narayanan, chief merchandising officer at Anthropologie. H&M’s new dress collection for spring features flowy dresses with floral motifs.Meanwhile, fast fashion retailer H&M said its three new women’s collections for spring and summer include dresses (priced at $12.99 to $49.99) inspired by “a meadow of flowers” that convey the “feeling of positivity and happiness.”David's Bridal says weddings are coming back — now with jumpsuits and short hemsThe collection features a mix of long, soft flowy dresses or shorter two-piece skirt and top outfits with a variety of floral prints. Another new collection launching in May from H&M features colorful kaftan-style dresses (priced at $12.99 to $49.99) made from sustainable fabrics like organic linen.Ann-Sofie Johansson, H&M’s creative advisor, said dresses were proving to be popular this spring. “I think everyone is ready for change. It has been a long winter impacted even more by the stay-at-home rules during the pandemic,” Johansson said. “While we have all come to love and rely on our comfy loungewear, we definitely want a wardrobe change-up and inject newness.”Breezy, brightly-colored dresses made with sustainable fabrics are part of H&M’s dress offerings this year.Plus, people increasingly have places to be. David’s Bridal, one of largest sellers of wedding gowns in the United States, has said it expects weddings to return with a vengeance this year and into 2022 because of pent-up demand. Other chains have noticed a similar trend.”Dresses, which were so challenged in 2020, are definitely seeing improvement,” Macy’s (M) CEO Jeff Gennette told investors at a JP Morgan retail conference in early April.”You’ve got young women that are now able to put kind of a prom date on the calendar, and they’re coming to our stores and websites,” he said. “You definitely have wedding dates that you’re starting to see pop up on people’s calendars, and you’re seeing the mother of the bride over at the bride category. And then just people are going out more. You see that in [demand] for casual day dresses.”For 2021, Macy’s is stocking dresses in bold color and bright floral prints, said Durand Guion, vice president of Macy’s Fashion. Macy’s is selling dresses and skirts in bold colors and prints for spring and summer.It’s orange, yellows, greens and purples, he said. “The dresses feature lots of volume and ruffles.”Much of the assortment at Express (EXPR) caters to occasion wear, such as prom, graduation, weddings and receptions. Express CEO Tim Baxter said the retailer has also observed a resurgence of shoppers buying outfits, including dresses, for these events. To that end, Baxter said dresses in knit fabrics — such as Express’s body contour sleeveless ribbed knit Maxi dress — are very popular. “Knit fabric by nature offers more stretch than woven fabric and its more soft, too.”Bikini waxes, lashes and blowouts: It's time to return to our pre-pandemic selves“As people continue to venture out more, we’re expecting prints, colors, and those easy, comfortable styles within these categories to remain strong.”