(Reuters) - After years of skimping on clothing American men are hitting the shopping malls in droves, a sure sign the economy is finally strengthening.
Sales of men's apparel are forecast to increase 8.26 percent in the first quarter, according to IBM Global Business Services. Men spent an estimated $8.4 billion on clothing last year.
That would be up 8.21 percent from 2010 and the largest increase in 20 years.
The estimates are based on data from the Census Bureau, which will publish detailed December apparel sales numbers later this month, and these figures do not include internet sales.
"What is happening here is that men are going back to work. It was harder for a man to get a job than it was for a woman," Mike Haydock, head of retail analytics at IBM told Reuters.
The economy has enjoyed five months of strong employment growth, creating 243,000 new jobs last month. Economic growth gathered pace in the final three months of 2011 and data so far suggest that the momentum carried into early this year.
Men were hardest hit by the recession, which decimated employment in manufacturing and construction. While most of the jobs lost during the 2007-09 downturn will never come back, men are slowly getting back on their feet.
In January, the unemployment rate for men 20 years and over declined to 7.7 percent from 8 percent, closing the gap with women in the same age group. The jobless rate for women in that category fell to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent in December.
It was the first time since the end of the recession that the unemployment rates between the genders have been equal.
"Women gained nearly 40 percent of the jobs added last month, but have gained less than 8 percent of the 1.9 million net jobs added since the start of the recovery," said Joan Entmacher, head of family economic security at the National Women's Law Center in Washington.
Men's unemployment rate increased more than women's during the recession, but has dropped by 2.2 percentage points during the recovery. Women's unemployment rate has risen by 0.1 percentage point since the start of the recovery.
That shift is also showing in spending patterns. In contrast to the brisk pace forecast for men's apparel, sales of women's clothing are projected to have increased only 1.96 percent last year, according to IBM data.
First-quarter sales are seen up 2.44 percent.
Most the sales of men's apparel are concentrated in the 25-30 age group, one of the segments where joblessness has been high. Unemployment for men between 24 and 34 years fell to 9 percent in January from 9.5 percent.
But in general, men are dressing up as well, a trend that could give the economy a bit of swagger.
"Men across the board are buying skinny ties and suspenders. A more polished, business look is 'in', and men are spending freely on themselves due to a pent up demand," said Jill Puleri, a vice president at IBM.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani)
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