THESE days, a visit to the Louvre, Paris's great art museum and one-time palace of the kings of France, might also include a kind of fashion show on the side. Not a fast-paced parade of live models along a catwalk, admittedly, but a delightfully imaginative display of high fashion nevertheless. You can find it at the new Mus'ee des Arts de la Mode.
As Mme. Edmonde Charles-Roux, organizer of this first exhibition in the new museum, puts it in a written introduction, ``La mode entre au Louvre.'' (Fashion comes to the Louvre.)
If any nation has a penchant for treating la mode as a true art form, it is surely France. The new museum -- housed in the Louvre's Pavillon de Marsanat at 107 Rue de Rivoli -- opened at the end of January. Transformation of the nine-story building, which was something of a devastation area until construction on it began three years ago, is not yet complete, but the plans are for a museum to rival New York's Fashion Institute or Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum. Paris ought to have such a museum.
Two collections come together here: some 6,500 costumes from the 18th to the 20th century amassed by the Union Fran,aise des Arts du Costume; and the collection of the Union des Arts D'ecoratifs, most notably some fine male costumes of the 18th century. Yvonne Deslandres keeps an eye on things at the Union Fran,aise des Arts du Costume, founded in 1948, while Nadine Gasc is conservator at the Union des Arts D'ecoratifs. There are also shoes, gloves, parasols, hats, fans, handkerchiefs -- and 80,000 patterns.
Later this year there is to be a permanent display of some of the museum's treasures. Meanwhile, a theatrically conceived inaugural show provides a fascinating glimpse of more than a hundred marvelously preserved costumes from the 18th century to 1940.
(There is a conscious shying away at this time from showing la mode as it was in Nazi-occupied France, or in the postwar period; nothing after the war, comments Charles-Roux, was ``the same as before.'')
The exhibition, called ``Moments de Mode,'' presents the story of fashion as an artificial drama of dreams and fantasies -- and it does so with consummate French flair. Tableau follows tableau: After a look at the few remaining relics of the 17th century, the show launches into the 18th century.
Porcelain-headed mannequins, revolving slowly, show off five distinct sorts of women's dresses from this century, including early ``robes volantes,'' ``robes `a la fran,aises,'' and a particularly attractive ``robe `a la polonaise'' in soft pink and light green, a style named after Polish national dress, narrow at the waist, round and full-skirted at the back, divided in front toreveal an underskirt, thewhole thing prettily embroidered.
Toward the end of the century, a Grecian- (and English-) inspired simplicity appears, and the dresses change from the world of such French painters as Watteau and Boucher to the world associated with David and Ingres. Wide skirts over panier frameworks vanish, and there is a new lightness and ease, a classical line, and a thin delicacy of materials which makes the earlier dresses look heavy and stiff. Muslin and cotton replace taffeta, lampas, and satin.
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that at this point, when the fashionable lady liked to dress ``like an angel'' and a natural appreciation of women's undistorted shape and movements surfaced, the exhibition finally abandons all interest in the male, though this is not until after there has been an impressive display of rich, elaborate 18th-century men's garb.
From then on, ``fashion'' is a feminine province, or at least that is the clear thesis of ``Moments de Mode.''
The exhibition is a history of la mode, not simply of clothes, and as such it is free to enjoy the opulence and whimsy of fashion.
Mme. Charles-Roux writes that fashion is the creation of clothes for embellishment rather than protection. ``It can signify a thousand different things: power or authority, unbridled luxury or austerity, humor, cosmopolitanism.''
Above all, fashion moves. It is not its nature to stand still. The female silhouette proceeds through all sorts of changes, each charted by the exhibition's tableaux of superbly dressed mannequins.
In the 19th century high waists and a gentle looseness of form give way to narrow waists in the ``right place'' and an ever-widening circle of skirts which ended in the invention of the crinoline. This, in turn, is modified into what the French called the ``tournure'' -- the bustle.
An amusing tableau shows seven mannequins of the period 1860-85, like women in a painting by Monet or Renoir, sporting cashmere shawls or ``visites'' trimmed and tasseled and embroidered, comic little brightly colored hats, veils, and -- behind -- enormous bustles. They are shown inspecting a gallery of paintings of exotic parrots. The parallel is evident.
Charles Frederic Worth -- an Englishman -- is shown as the first Parisian couturier to leave his name to the fashion world, the first dictatorial dress designer, and the dominant force in French -- and American -- fashion for many years at the end of the 19th century. His popularity with rich Americans, it is believed, explains the scarcity of dresses designed by him surviving in France: They are mostly in American collections. From the ``Second Empire'' epoque, which brought him to prominence, the only remaining item of his in France is a small purple ``Jaquette,'' extraordinarily ornate.
The female silhouette at the turn of the century became an extraordinary S-bend -- a shape it is difficult to admire: Is it grotesque distortion or forced finesse? Whatever, it does seem peculiarly unnatural.
The cavalcade continues, and further star names shine: Paul Poiret was one, inventor of a ``new odlisque,'' though the fascination for dresses with Turkish echoes during the first part of the 20th century was also encouraged by the popularity of the Ballets Russes in Paris.
French women were not suffragettes, but their dress did repsond to a greater freedom. They were no longer prepared to looklike idle puppets; tey had access to better education, and to sport. Hems rose, at first as far as the ankle, which was daring enough, and from then on they refused, in spite of some later romantic tendencies in evening wear, to brush the dust again.
The '20s are captured by a ``jewelry box'' effect of mannequins in short, exaggeratedly low-waisted tunics in scintillating materials, decorated with pearls and gold thread. They are gracefully disposed of inside a Pullman car of dark mahogany--``L'Orient-Express.''
Other countries celebrated in this exhibition include Chanel, Lanvin, and Vionnet. A striking room is given to gant black dresses of the '30s by Chanel, in contrast to even more elegant white dresses by Vionnet.
In the hands of these designers, fashion became clothing of deceptive simplicity, which was nevertheless suggestive of supreme wealth. The Great Depression was paradoxically a brilliant time for haute couture, suggesting perhaps one of the raisons d'^etre of fashion: compensation.
The story is rounded off by a ``circus'' tableau, a tribute to the surrealist imagination and inventive fun of Elsa Schiaparelli's contribution in the '30s, '40s, and '50s to la mode.
Lovers of fashion will be encouraged by this French recognition of the country's own special brilliance in the art.The only sad note is that so much has been lost of earlier centuries by a contradictory national attitude of indifference.
Comparison with the costume collection in London's Victoria and Albert Museum indicates how heavy the losses have been.
It is not very long ago that many 18th-century dresses were systematically taken apart in France to re-upholster furniture. Now, thanks largely to Mlle. Deslandres and Mme. Gasc's insistence on costume as ``an essential element of the human comedy'' and on its preservation and display as a contribution to our understanding of social history, it seems that attitudes have changed. The new museum was as crowded on my visit as the rush-hour metro.
``Moments de Mode'' continues through May 4, and is to be followed by an exhibition devoted to Yves Saint-Laurent through Oct. 26. Thereafter Dior will be celebrated in a six-month long exhibition. Serious students wishing to see costumes stored in the museum but not on public view should apply in writing to Alain Simonneau, 109, Rue de Rivoli, 7500l Paris.)