Throughout modern Western history, Paris has been synonymous with style. As long ago as the 16th century, British dramatist Ben Jonson sent a character in one of his comedies ''as far as Paris to fetch over a fashion and come back again.''

Of course, it is no longer necessary to actually journey to Paris to see the latest styles. In fact, the export aspect of the French fashion industry has existed since the 1770s and '80s, when Rose Bertin, dress designer to the extravagant Marie Antoinette, created a network of French fashion hegemony by sending miniature mannequins, fully outfitted in her latest modes, to other European capitals.

Around the turn of this century designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) expanded the influence of Paris fashion when he invented the modern fashion show and displayed his couture collections to foreign buyers. Poiret is also credited with an achievement of equal or greater importance: the liberation of the feminine form from stiffly corseted shapes to a softer, more natural look. His creative freedom opened the door to the greater individualism and variety in French design and signaled the world's best-dressed people to look to Paris for indications of hemline lengths and shoulder shapes.

Visitors to Paris notice immediately that the people there have a distinctive flair, an ever-present sense of style, that makes the streets of this city seem like a perpetual parade of the latest and best in dress. But the real spectacle and glitter of Paris fashion is to be seen at the famous maisons de couture, the opulent palaces that cater to those on the world's best-dressed list. The official roster of fashion houses includes about two dozen emporiums with instantly recognizable designer labels - Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain, Courreges, Carven, and others.

No matter that few of us have budgets that permit Paris shopping sprees. The great French fashion houses treat the public -- both buying and just looking -- to regularly scheduled fashion shows of their latest collections. In most cases all that is required to attend one of these shows is a reservation, free of charge upon request by telephone from the specific fashion house. Addresses and telephone numbers are found in the Paris telephone directory or at most hotel reception desks.

To make a day at the designers even more convenient, many of the fashion houses are near one another in the centrally located 8th arrondisement. For example, the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, a street that parallels the Champs-Elysees, displays the finest fashion houses like a string of pearls.

Lanvin occupies No. 22, Ted Lapidus is at No. 23, Hermes is found at No. 24, Yves Saint Laurent resides at No. 38, Pierre Cardin is located at No. 59, and Louis Feraud presides at No. 88. Avenue Montaigne, which intersects the Champs-Elysees at an angle, boasts the houses of Christian Dior at No. 26-32, of Guy Laroche at No. 29, and of Nina Ricci at No. 39. The famed Givenchy is located at 3 Avenue Georges V, a street forming a triangle with Avenue Montaigne and the Champs-Elysees. In short, with a little planning, one can go from salon to salon with ease.

Fashion shows feature the designer's couture collections for the coming season. This spring's shows, for instance, display fashions to be ordered for the fall and winter. Collections include outfits for all occasions - casual and formal attire, and special items such as bridal gowns. For the most part, shows are scheduled in the afternoons and last 45 minutes to one hour.

For my first fashion stop, I selected the Maison de Christian Dior. Entering the salon was like waltzing into the photo pages of a fashion magazine. Although the salon's chandeliers, lush potted plants, thick carpeting, and lavish gold leaf trimmings were no more elegant than those of the lovely lobby at the Hotel Intercontinental Paris or a dozen fashionable Parisian restaurants, there was an incomparable ambiance of rarefied opulence here. And the air, I felt, was charged with anticipation of an Event.

The seating arrangement is simple. Several rows of comfortably cushioned straight-back chairs are set to face the carpeted runway, a long, elevated platform on which the young models parade, gracefully glide and twirl, displaying the exquisite costumes. Dior's profusion of linear patterns and two-toned plaids, prints, and luscious solids moved to the constant pulsing beat of background music, which builds to a crescendo as the costumes become more and more sensational.

I was glad I had brought a friend who, though she is somewhat more chic than I and more attuned to Paris fashion, was receptive to my impressionable oohs and aahs. She also joined willingly in a search of the other spectators for that person who seems to be more than just a spectator -- but was perhaps there as a buyer. . .

She might have been a celebrity. We couldn't identify her, though we did whisper some words of inquiry to each other. She was a slender, tall, carefully coiffed blond woman, wearing a fashion that could have easily attired one of the models on the runway. Seated alone, she seemed to create space around herself, as an exemplification of the phrase ''standing out in the crowd.''

As the show progressed, the models discovered her too, and began to direct toward her their most alluring turns, feints, and postures, while they flashed her their most persuasive smiles.

Most of the other women and men in the audience were no more distinctively adorned than was I, outfitted in my best traveling basic black suit and silk shirt. It was evident that everyone there had taken some care with appearances, and quite rightly too. The fashion show as presented by the maisons de couture is an art form, a special type of theater or ballet, and appearance is its clarion, and only, message. Practical details: If you, like most tourists, have limited hours in which to pursue the Parisian look, it is advisable to research a fashion magazine to determine which designers most appeal to your taste and to visit only the most appropriate maisons. Even if you can't afford to order a souvenir from your favorite haute couture collection, most of the fashion houses also have boutiques featuring a full selection of the designer's more moderately priced ready-to-wear fashions and accessories. These in-house boutiques are usually very well stocked and offer items not available elsewhere. Some of the boutiques , most notably that of Christian Dior, also offer a full range of accessories for the home.

This year's important and regularly scheduled haute couture shows are as follows:

Balmain, at 44 Rue Francois I (Telephone 720-3534), has shows on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from February through June, at 3 p.m. The salon seats 200.

Carven, at 6 Rond-Point des Champs-Elysees (Telephone 359-1752), shows from February through mid-May on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in a salon that seats 20 people.

Christian Dior, at 30 Avenue Montaigne (Telephone 723-5444), has shows on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 3:30 p.m. from February through mid-May. When making reservations ask for reception haute couture.

Guy Laroche, at 29 Avenue Montaigne (Telephone 723-7872), shows in February and March on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lanvin, at 22 Faubourg Saint-Honore (Telephone 265-1440), shows on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:30 p.m. from February through April. The salon seats 50.

Nina Ricci, at 39 Avenue Montaigne (Telephone 723-7888), shows the haute couture collection from Monday through Friday at 3 p.m. and the ready-to-wear collection at 11 a.m. daily, both from February through April.

Both Emanuel Ungaro, at 2 Avenue Montaigne (Telephone 723-6194), and Yves Saint Laurent, at his showroom at 5 Avenue Marceau (Telephone 723-7271), have this year initiated video screenings in place of live shows. Their collections are of interest but the effect is not the same.

Gres, at 1 Rue de la Paix (Telephone 261-5815), has live shows on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 3:30 p.m. from February through mid-June, for 30 people. The salon is thinking of initiating an innovative use of video as background to live models, to show detail of the clothing.

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