The fashion shift at J.C. Penney has been slow, but definitely hasn't gone unnoticed.

I started picking up on slight changes two years ago. During my jaunts to the mall, I'd wander into Penneys and undoubtedly I'd walk out with something - a floral dress by Bisou Bisou or a Worthington pencil skirt. I'd randomly mix these pieces into my wardrobe and sure enough someone would comment, "Nice dress." "Cute top."

Giggling to myself, I'd casually respond, "Girl, I got this from Penneys."

At the same time, my friends were reporting their fashion finds to me. I mentioned to one girlfriend that I was particularly fond of a denim frock she wore, and she responded, "I ordered it from J.C. Penney online." Another chum said she likes the way the Allen Schwartz dresses fit her. And my sister is a fan of a.n.a.

I was finally convinced of Penneys' poshness when I attended an early summer soiree in a floral, watercolor sheath - a J.C. Penney, of course. The dress was a killer. People are still talking to me about it.

What happened to J.C. Penney? Wasn't this the place our moms shopped via that thick catalog? (By the way, the Penneys catalog was discontinued earlier this year.)

Apparently the mall staple, along with others once seen as matronly shopping haunts, including Dress Barn and Talbots, are undergoing fashion makeovers. Much like fast-fashion haunts Target, H&M, and Zara, Penneys wants us to know that in these tough economic times, we can find hot looks at bargain prices.

But instead of selling disposable clothes, Penneys is positioning itself to be more like Macy's, promising the shopper a little more longevity, as well as bang for the buck. You'd be hard-pressed to spend more than $100 in the store's junior, men's, or even women's sections.

"Over the last several years, we've made dramatic strides in stepping up our style," said Penneys spokeswoman Kate Coultas. "The new banner for our marketing is 'New look. New day. Who knew?' "

Now we do.

Penneys has spent much of this year rolling out cooler clothes under hipper labels. This year, it expanded Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen's junior line, Olsenboye, which includes skinny jeans and scoop-necked glittery tanks. And it introduced the menswear line JOE Joseph Abboud, by men's runway designer Joseph Abboud.

Earlier this month Penneys became the exclusive department store for Liz Claiborne. It features women's and men's clothing. The Home collection will launch in January.

Last week Penneys launched MNG by Mango, a career and sportswear collection for women. Mango is a fast-fashion retailer based in Barcelona, and the company opened 77 boutiques in Penneys stores nationwide, including those in King of Prussia and Cherry Hill.

It will join I Ronson, Charlotte Ronson's line, as well as Ralph Lauren's American Living, Nicole by Nicole Miller, and Bisou Bisou by contemporary Michelle Bohbot.

Next month Penneys will launch a collection of men's and women's shoes and women's handbags courtesy of Aldo. The collection is named Call It Spring and will debut in Manhattan. Bye bye, boring plastic shoes. Hello, peep-toed pumps. The shop-in-shops will expand to other locations throughout 2011.

There are also Sephoras in 215 Penneys stores around the country. It's as if the cosmetics gods heard my prayers to provide me more open kiosks filled to the rim with tubes of shiny lip gloss and vibrant mascaras.

Amid all of these changes, however, Penneys is bracing for a not-so-good shopping season. On Aug. 13, the company reported a second-quarter profit that was up from last year, but its officials are fearful that the middle-income shopper hit worst by the recession won't be shopping as much.

Already a believer in Penneys, I perused the Cherry Hill store earlier this week and was pleasantly surprised with the I Ronson sequined tops, which reminded me of similar ones by Alice + Olivia.

I wanted to try on a pair of the skinny denims, in yellow no less, and a couple of Worthington skirts with topstitching seemed perfect for work. A chic faux-leather jacket in peanut butter called my name for just $59.99.

I came pretty close to buying a blue-and-white-striped hooded dress from Penneys' private label, a.n.a., for just $30. But I remained strong and escaped with just an orange plaid shirtdress with darling pleats in the yoke. Grand total: $14.99.

Now, that's my kind of shopping.