Through the looking glass. A very civilized kind of madness in the glittery, scented, red-lipsticked, swivel-pause world of high fashion.

AS overwhelming and confusing as fashion shows can be, it is still clear right away who's who. First, seated in rows of little white folding chairs, are the fashion writers. They're all in black, with sculptured hair and ``important'' jewelry - not a discreet mutter of a pearl here or mumble of a small gold chain there, but massive dinner-gong whorls of silver and gold that trumpet across a room, ``I am a bracelet! I am an earring!''

Crammed into a kind of little pit on one end of the runway are the photographers. They're mostly men, and are folksier, more workmanlike, with sweaters pushed up to the elbow; they do not look as if their hair has been cut by anybody famous. THEN there are the models, and when you see them you understand why the average person will never, ever be thin enough. It's not a matter of being an ordinary pretty woman who has virtuously given up eating. Any of these lovely young ladies could be dropped through a basketball hoop; they are like a specially bred species, or perhaps beings from another planet, where all the inhabitants have fine-boned, gazelle-like limbs, perfect small heads and faces above long, amazing necks, and wear bright red lipstick.

The spring shows are in the fall, and vice versa, a fact that adds to the feeling that you've somehow stumbled through the looking glass. Some showrooms are the size of a subway car, others are like auditoriums, but whatever the size, it's not big enough. Half again as many people as can fit in the space squeeze like toothpaste through the narrow aisles.

It's a very civilized kind of madness. Well-groomed women struggle to their seats. A man knifes you in the back with his camera lens and then apologizes in the sweetest, most cultured way. The Dallas Morning News jostles the St. Petersburg Times, which is cheek by jowl with the San Diego Union. The people next to you are speaking in German. The room smells of expensive perfume, and as the house lights dim, you are in a dark, scented cave.

Albert Nipon's showroom is gray and white. The loudspeaker starts up with a jaunty boop-boop-be-doop version of ``Straighten up and fly right''; and the models, in a uniform of deep purple lipstick and heavy powder, come swaggering out in totally admirable, ladylike little suits, with tiny short straight skirts an inch or so above the knee, long jackets sculpted in at the waist, wide belts, small stiff black straw hats, and little gloves. You couldn't sit down typing for hours in an outfit like this, or pick up your baby who'd just been eating stewed peas, or charge into the street for a cab. But it would be perfect for church on Easter Sunday, or to wear to a fancy restaurant.

The colors shown are mostly black, white, navy, brilliant reds, and jade, and there isn't much emphasis on mix and match; you wear your red shoes with your red hat and your red suit. No prints or texture for the more formal things, though there are Tahitian-type patterns for loose, cottony, beachy dresses.

The models clap their gloved hands with the pretty white bows at the wrists and smile wide red-lipsticked smiles; 10 minutes later they are all pressed into the elevator - a lot of them fit because they don't take up very much room. They chatter softly in a variety of languages as they spill out onto Seventh Avenue and vanish into the crowd.

Seventh Avenue is like a street in Shanghai, plus cars. There is a person or a taxi fighting its way along every square inch of it, in a rush hour that never ends. Squat gray men push racks of clothes - 30 pairs of purple pants - down the street in the rain.

This is the fashion capital of the United States. The shows are set up along Seventh Avenue so that you can rush madly from one to the next.

Calvin Klein's showroom has golden beige carpeted bleachers for the writers; the photographers are at one end of the runway. A Japanese man and woman meet in the aisle and bow briskly up and down.

``Helloooo, how ahhh you dahling,'' said the handsome gray-haired Englishwoman next to me, catching sight of an old acquaintance. They touch both cheeks and begin sweetly agreeing about things in high, piping voices. ``Bill Blass - tremendously glamorous. You're going to Ralph tomorrow? Yes, I've got a ticket for Perry. Paris? It was a pleasure.'' And so on.

The lights dim, and Iman, the curve of her forehead like an African sculpture, flows down the runway toward the cameras in a navy and white striped off the shoulder dress, closely followed by Paulina, wearing a black and white striped boatneck dress, and with the upright carriage of a maiden in a German fairy tale.

Many of the models are recognizable from the pages of Vogue. They have single musical names, like Dalma or Marpessa or Sheeba; any one of them could launch a thousand ships as if it were nothing. They sail by like swans until they come to the photographer's pit.

Here, they dart a quick special look at each camera, with bright little jerks of the head and matching little mannered poses of the thin arms; swivel, pause, swivel, pause, and the flashbulbs go pop-pop-pop-pop like the Fourth of July. This is the heart of this event; when a model poses and no camera flashes it seems as if there is something missing, like a comment that has rudely trailed away unanswered.

They all wear loose pants with pleats at the top, and off the shoulder cashmere sweaters in creamy delectable colors - fennel, persimmon, delphinium, mango. Also little vertical striped tops under double-breasted jackets, with more short straight skirts above the knee. All just the thing to wear for lunch at the club, if you have one, or for going to a very nice party. CAROLYNE Roehm's show is in a huge ballroom, where klieg lights bounce off the mirrors and crystal chandeliers. From where I sit the models rise from a sea of cameras like Venus from the waves.

A dark-haired woman comes out in a narrow, gray suit with a pale pink blouse with a plunging neckline, tied at the waist in a soft sash with a big flower. ``Oh, that's terrific - that cabbage rose,'' says the woman behind me.

Then comes a series of suits with short jackets over short full skirts, and evening dresses in lemony-orange and hot pink with translucent lime-green earrings that seem to precede the models down the runway. Shadows flare up at the wall behind them as they glitter and pout. One model in a yellow top and white jacket and skirt turns halfway down the runway and smiles an exquisite triangular Audrey Hepburn smile, tender, radiant, and artificial.

All the designers are showing a variety of shapes and silhouettes, but in general, clothes are short and fitted by day, and short and ruffled by night. But if you're planning to hide behind those ruffles, forget it; they mostly start way below the hips.

Adrienne Vittadini designs more for the average person; you can imagine going about your life in her witty patterned white sweaters with the asymmetrical Russian lettering and colorful jungly prints. She is also showing suits in a sort of intellectual safari look - loose khaki and olive skirts and jackets with big pockets and wide leather belts.

Unless you work at a bank or someplace where the dress code is pretty rigorous, you might even be able to get away with wearing some of her clothes to the office.

In general, things to wear to the office seem a low priority here, perhaps because the people the really high fashion designers are aiming at don't work. At Oscar de la Renta, many of the ladies in the audience, seated in the front rows, are having their pictures taken; they are customers, ``the ladies who lunch,'' explains the woman next to me. And if eating lunch at fancy restaurants and going to fabulous balls are your primary activities, Mr. de la Renta's outfits could not be more wonderful. More classy little suits and taut little shifts, all above the knee, appear again with long jackets. No patterns, except for polka dots or horizontal stripes on the camisole-like blouses. Conservative colors, and no texture, are offset by the racy shapes. For evening there are some black, columnar things with diagonal ruffles that look as if you should wear them posed atop a wide marble staircase with a dramatic sunset behind you.

But most striking is a kind of Latino look: skin-tight, bare-shouldered, with tiers of satiny hot pink or black ruffles that explode out from the knee, like a tutu.

Seven models in short, shiny, ruffly, silvery dresses come skipping and whirling out with Mr. de la Renta, a genial and elegant looking man, and it is over; the lights come on and some of the ladies who lunch climb up on the chairs and up on the stage to put in their orders.

A man in a lavender tie, much handsomer than people are in real life, is kissing the more important ladies on the cheek; one of them keeps saying excitedly: ``Beautiful, beautiful.'' To which he replies, ``Wonderful. Wonderful.'' They beautiful and wonderful each other for a while, and then the man says kindly, ``Everything with the ruffle, you mus' have the ruffle.''

Outside, it is raining, and winter is coming on. Inside is an ideal world where fine-boned, bare-shouldered women pose on a runway in the glaring lights before a dark, anonymous crowd, and a gorgeous dress gets the attention it deserves.

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