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Like a summer breeze Comfortable and available in many styles, the versatile dress has become a must-have for the hot weather months.

If you want to be well-dressed this summer, you should wear, well, a dress.

In case you hadn't noticed, dresses are everywhere right now.

Shirt dresses and sun dresses, tents and trapezes, babydolls and jumpers, bubbles and wraps: you name it, the silhouette is out there.

If it's been a while since you wore one, it won't be long before you remember just how versatile, comfortable and dependable a dress can be.

A dress will streamline your morning routine to 10 seconds -- just pop into a dress and slip on some shoes, and you're good to go. Jewelry optional.

There will be no tossing of tops onto the bed, no crawling around on the closet floor looking for separates that go together and that won't suffocate you when you hit the outdoors. Most summer dresses won't even require you to expend the energy to pull up a zipper; tying a bow at the waist or neck is all that keeps summer frocks from being completely effortless.

And even though stores have already been bringing in their early fall merchandise, there are still tons of dresses out there, and, better yet, many are now at marked-down prices.

"We have really seen a return to dresses, says MaryJo Bishop, area district manager for Lane Bryant stores. "They are a nice alternative to separates, and they can go from the office to dinner at the lake with a change of shoes."

Lisa Keating, owner of LeeLee in Williamsville, says she has been selling day- and sun dresses steadily for a month. "The weather has been so hot, and it is just so comfortable to walk around in a dress."

Keating says dresses haven't been this popular in years. That's largely because manufacturers got out of the habit of making them.

"Manufacturers haven't known how to make dresses that are flattering to all types of bodies," says Sue Sneck, store manager at the Kohl's store on Niagara Falls Boulevard. After seasons of nudging from store buyers and customers, they finally responded.

"Now, as soon as I get a shipment [of dresses] in, I put them right up front."

According to the NPD Group, which tracks retail trends, sales of dresses in the past year have increased more than 30 percent, compared to an increase of only 5 percent for women's clothing overall.

Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, notes that the trend is not limited to women of a particular size range -- they are equally popular with juniors, misses and plus-size shoppers.

"Dresses are an appealing addition to a woman's wardrobe," he says. "They're easy to wear. And there's a style that will flatter pretty much every woman, regardless of where she is in the demographic spectrum."

"We're seeing a return to dresses at all levels and of all types," agrees Betsy Thompson, a spokeswoman for Talbot's. "We're seeing a return to more feminine dressing. They're forgiving to the figure, they work in lots of settings, and only one hanger is required."

Probably the biggest reason women are finding dresses to be more comfortable and flattering is because a huge number of them are made in jersey knit, so they are fluid and forgiving of minor -- and not so minor -- figure quirks. (Quirks, not flaws. Got it?)

And even when dresses are made of a stiffer, woven fabric, many are designed with full- or A-line skirts to stand away from, rather than cling to, hips and thighs.

According to fashion experts, the variety of dress shapes available also makes it easy to find a dress that fits and flatters.

Empire-waist styles and wrap dresses can both be flattering to women self-conscious about their tummies. The high Empire waist hits the body at its narrowest point and skims away from any Taste Of Buffalo bloat. Wrap dresses, especially those with the patterns so popular this season, draw the eye to the waist and camouflage extra roundness.

Smock, tent and trapeze dresses hide a multitude of sins because the last place they touch the body is above the bust. The chief hazard is that people might think you, like Nicole Richie, are pregnant. If you opt for one, keep it on the short, fun and casual side, and keep it out of the office.

Strapless dresses and dresses with halter necklines are great for showing off a gorgeously tanned (with proper SPF precautions, ladies) back and shoulders. And halter dresses that resemble Marilyn Monroe's iconic dress from "Seven Year Itch" -- which there are plenty of -- look great on virtually everybody.

Accessorize more casual and whimsical dresses with a cute ballet flat, a sassy wedge espadrille or even a pair of dime store flip-flops, depending on where you are headed. And if you feel like incurring the wrath of certain local fashion writers, feel free to pull a pair of pants on under your dress on cooler days.

Office-bound dresses demand a shoe with more substance. Open-toed or sling-back pumps, preferably with a platform heel, balance out a dress with a longer hem and a more serious tone. So put your stilettos away for the season, OK?

Also, change over your leather purse for a woven straw bag -- the bigger the better. Even a tote you might be saving for trips to Crystal Beach will work with your summer dresses, but there are even bags with the structure of classic Kelly bags and some that call to mind picnic baskets.

And don't forget the most crucial accessory: moisturizer. Make sure to load up your limbs (and, please, please, please, your heels) with something emollient to keep dry skin at bay. You don't have to be tan to wear a dress, but you are not allowed to be flaky.


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