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Dancing down memory lane. Metropolitan Museum celebrates party attire through the ages

All the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute's exhibit ``Dance'' are the dark sophisticated blue of midnight in Monte Carlo, or someplace glamorous like that. Within are sumptuous clothes - clothes for stepping out in, clothes for painting the town red to the sound of Cole Porter, or Mick Jagger, or maybe Johann Strauss. They evoke a world where frivolity was serious business.

``The entrance gallery really has to do with making a grand entrance,'' says curator Jean Druesedow as we drift into a narrow room lined with such magical evening coats that you wonder how people could bear to take them off. ``Really famous designers are represented in this gallery. The yellow coat is by Paul Poiret. This gray one is a Worth. That's one of the most famous ones; it's a Paquin. It's just sensational.''

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A waltz plays in the background. We look at the coats, great sweeping fanciful affairs: the gray silk Worth with its enormous shoulders covered with gold beads, hanging down to a squared off point in the back; the Paquin, black velvet and warm pink silk with a witty motif of lavendar bamboo and lime-and-white whirligigs; and the Paul Poiret, golden yellow silk picked out with black and lined with a frail gray blue - kind of natty and rich-looking simultaneously. You feel that the people who designed these things must have enjoyed themselves.

A black velvet evening cape by Schiaparelli, once worn by Elsie de Wolfe (1938), represents the Fountain of Apollo at Versailles - a gold sequin explosion of spray, clouds, and tossing manes.

In the next gallery, the waltz fades and the sound system switches over to ``Let's Face the Music and Dance.'' ``Now, this gallery is devoted to the Spanish influence on ball gowns,'' says Ms. Druesedow, as we are surrounded by bolero vests with bobbles down the front, passementerie, and mad cascading ruffles.

We go on to the next gallery and pause before a pretty 1938 Paquin of white silk organza, with black curling wisps running up the skirt, like the plumes of an exotic bird. Then we pause again before a dress of cream colored georgette (a kind of chiffon). ``This one may actually be a Chanel, but there's no label so we can't really say it is; I keep hoping it is. There's a Cecil Beaton photo of someone wearing it.''

In this room, two mannequins, elegantly representing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, take pride of place. The Duke's sleek dress suit is dark blue wool; the Duchess's dress is a rather clunky Vionnet, with a U-neck halter top and white overskirt with silver circles on it.

``The duke wore midnight blue instead of black, and a red carnation: He really had a tremendous impact on men's fashion,'' says Druesedow. ``He had a real interesting style of dressing; he wore plaid suits and things that were really very spiffy, very stylish.''

In the next gallery, the sound system was playing ``What a Swell Party This Is,'' to complement a handsome group of busty ball-dresses from the '50s - ``the Dior New Look, after he invented the strapless gown,'' says Druesedow. ``About eight of these belonged to Mrs. Byron Foye. I can imagine what happened at Dior when she walked in the door.''

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The next gallery is devoted to the 18th and early 19th centuries. Men in 18th-century French court dress were not mere solemn black appendages; in their long embroidered coats and knee britches they were as much worth looking at as the women, with their dignified garden of pastels on massive skirts. In reaction, the early 19th century was simpler; women wore sweet white Jane Austen muslins, with the delicacy of a handkerchief and the shape of a nightgown, more or less, while men wore smart but subdued dark blue jackets and buff-colored vests and white linen collars - the influence of famous dandy Beau Brummel, according to Druesedow.

``The 18th century was filthy - when you're wearing silks and ruffles to go hunting,'' she says. People think of a dandy as a man who wears extravagant clothes, but ``The reputation of the dandy was really just the opposite.'' While Mr. Brummel was famous for the whiteness of his collars, which he would change many times a day, he favored a neatness and simplicity of dress. ``It's really his influence we're experiencing today, in men's blue pinstriped suits. And women too - the `dress for success' formula.''

The Belle Epoque was the age of the grande dame, and the next room shows ``the sort of social scene presided over by Mrs. Astor,'' she says. In the middle of a dignified throng, a seated mannequin wears one of Mrs. Astor's dresses, a hefty Worth gown covered with light plum sequins leaving blank spaces in the form of huge purple roses. Even without anyone in it, it looks somehow in charge.

A more fun group is to be found in the masquerade gallery, where there are costumes by famous coutouriers made for parties where you were supposed to come as your favorite historical character or an oriental prince. These are the parties you wish you'd been asked to. One lady walking into the masquerade room asks the question of the hour, ``Did you get your invitation to that ball? I don't remember it.''

Here the music is ``Bolero.'' Next to a green ``marble'' pillar is an exquisite Yves Saint Laurent dress designed for a bal oriental in 1969: long langorous white and blond bird of paradise feathers trail down from neck to hip; underneath are elegant narrow leggings of flesh-colored organza. ``No matter what they were trying to represent, they retained the silhouette of the period,'' says Druesedow.

The last gallery shows ball gowns of the '60s; extravagance and elegance have been replaced by wit and a dated-looking ingenuity. (Women in their 30s and 40s tend to shriek as they walk into this room.)

It would have been essential to wear body stockings with some of these outfits. For instance, there were several dresses made simply of small plastic discs bolted together. One red-orange wool dress (Cardin, 1971) consists of a plain empire bodice with spoon-shaped pieces dangling down from it. It is hard to believe that anybody ever really wore this, or its neighbor, a white stretch lace mini-jump suit (Ungaro, 1967) with matching leggings.

``The '60s aesthetic was so total,'' says Druesedow, as the sound track gets to work on ``I Can't Get No Satisfaction.''

The exhibit stops here, she says, because the '60s was the last decade to have such a definite style. After that, fashion became eclectic; which is going to make things hard on future collectors.

From now on, she says, ``We're going to have to go to people and say, `Now you got this from the vintage clothing shop, and this from Perry Ellis; now, how did you put it together?'''

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