Soaring energy costs helped push U.S. consumer prices up a steep 0.4 percent last month, while rising apparel prices spurred core inflation more than expected, a government report showed on Wednesday.

The overall increase in the Labor Department's consumer price index for March matched expectations on Wall Street, but a 0.3 percent rise in prices excluding food and energy was a bit swifter than forecast.

The department pinned 70 percent of the gain in the core price index on rising costs for apparel and shelter, which is housing excluding utility and furniture costs.

Apparel prices, which had dropped 1 percent in February, moved 1 percent higher in March. Shelter costs, which account for nearly one-third of the overall CPI, rose a firm 0.4 percent for a second month in a row.

The report could raise some questions about whether the Federal Reserve will call a halt to a cycle of interest rate increases after the next policy meeting in May, particularly with oil costs striking record highs in recent days.

Despite the sharper-than-anticipated increase in core prices, the 12-month change held steady at 2.1 percent. The 12-month rate of overall consumer price inflation decelerated to 3.4 percent from the 3.6 percent rise registered in the period through February.

Energy costs shot up 1.3 percent last month, reversing a 1.2 percent February drop. Gasoline prices increased 3.6 percent, while natural gas costs fell 4.3 percent. Gasoline prices have continued to move higher this month.

The rise in consumer prices ate into Americans' spending power, with inflation-adjusted earnings falling 0.3 percent in March.