A partial slowdown in the decline of the women's US apparel market has bucked an overall trend, although analysts are cautioning the worst is not yet over.

Research by retail information specialist NPD Group shows the value of the women's apparel sector fell by just 3% during the fourth quarter of 2009.

Sales attributed to middle income consumers with salaries of $25,000 to $75,000 in 2009 are even with those they made the year before.

"To put it in perspective, the total market declined 5% while middle income consumers held fast," said NPD chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen.

"That means the recovery is beginning to show up in the apparel market for the very critical middle income consumer."

And despite the decline, NPD nonetheless detects signs that momentum is shifting. "For the fashion industry this is a very important sign," said Marshall. "As go women shoppers, so goes the total fashion market."

"Women represent just over 50% of total fashion market sales and they account for almost 25% in the purchases they make for others...without them a true recovery will not occur."

Other grounds for optimism come in the form of jeans (up 3.5%), dresses (up 2.3%), bras (up 1.1%), tights and men's underwear (up 11%).

However, upper income consumers and teenagers showed steep falls, down 9% and 20% respectively, leading Cohen to urge caution.

"Don't be fooled into thinking that we are out of the woods, just yet," he said.

"Between 'frugal fatigue' and pent-up demand, the consumer is spending, but we will likely see a lull in February and March as they [consumers] wait for their credit card balances to recover from holiday and January sales.  

"Then, come the change in the weather, late March and April, consumers will likely be assessing their wardrobes and opening their wallets a little bit, again."