Children's holiday dreams of napping with Sing and Snore Ernie may be a lot more realistic than women's fantasies of a chance to dress up in full gala regalia. The seasonal accumulation of magazines and catalogs is chock-a-block with beaded gowns, velvet opera coats, miles of diamante necklaces and outrageously unpractical dancing shoes. Women look, they dream, but the scenario that would merit all this finery eludes them.

Dressed-down parties have become so entrenched on the social scene during the last decade that women have nearly lost the knack of going full-tilt for glamour.

However, there are glimmers of hope that the dressing-down slump is turning around. We're seeing piles of rhinestones on jewelry counters, sequins in the shoe salon and tiaras in the juniors department.

Bill Blass, the guru of gala dressing, thinks it's about time. "The moment for understatement, minimalism is past. I'm so bored of hearing about it, so bored seeing it," says Blass.

Women are bored, too. They've had enough of cynical black and want to don some shine and fun.

Blass, acclaimed designer, raconteur, philanthropist, escort and pal to the legendary movers of the international best-dressed list, has seen glitz come and go in his 50 years in fashion. He has dressed style immortals like Jackie Kennedy, the Duchess of Windsor and Babe Paley. His current clients include social lionesses and celebrity divas such as Barbara Walters, Jessye Norman, Angelica Huston and Oprah Winfrey.

To show the gals around here how dressing up is done, Blass is bringing his spring collection to Washington on Monday for a show presented by Saks Fifth Avenue to benefit the American Cancer Society.

The enthusiasm for fantasy formal wear, however, seems to be coming not from high society matrons, but the young generation that missed dressing the last time around.

These kids have discovered feather boas, elbow-length gloves and towering hair constructions. They may treat these old-fashioned formal trappings as costume, but they are keen on finding occasions to show them off.

"All of a sudden you have girls coming out who would have been laughed at a few years ago. Now they're actually pushing their parents to make sure that they come out," says Blass, who has dressed some notable debs in his day.

The resuscitation of the debutante ritual holds true for Baltimore. This year's list of young women who were presented at the Bachelors Cotillon is double last year's.

"Debutante dressing is restricted," says Blass. "However, later they change into costume and go clubbing and stay out all night."

Young people are creating their own dress-up events. They have revived cocktail dresses, martinis, up-dos and stiletto heels from the days when the occasion stipulated the appropriate attire.

However, in a time when anything goes, formalized dress codes of the past have loosened up in favor of more original and amusing party wear.

"When there was a look for a season, women had something to live up to," says Blass. "Now all this fashion freedom has us crippled, indecisive. Maybe things will turn around by the year 2000."

A flush economy, too, is contributing to flashier permutations of fashion. "People say there has never been a time of so much money, that only the higher pricing sells. I showed a $10,000 jacket and sold a dozen," says Blass. At his fall trunk show at Saks in New York, Blass beat his own record and sold $1.2 million. That's a lot of frocks. "When it comes to rich people, the new breed called The Very Rich now has no hesitation in showing their money. And they still set the tone."

That may account for a renewed overall acceptance of status labels and showy clothes. "Most of this spending is by very new money. By tradition the nouveau riche always carry with them a touch of vulgarity," says Blass.

Blass, whose genius is his innate sense of knowing the fine line between luxe and loud, sees showiness creeping into the fashion scene again.

"A pretty good barometer is the San Francisco Opera, the only house that has a gala audience," he says. "Recently the most photographed woman there was wearing a most elaborate Escada gown."

In Baltimore, which seems to take perverse pride in not dressing, a little more pizazz is a welcome thing. Lisa DiJulio Bertani, chairwoman of the fall Opera Ball for the past two seasons, has seen the glamour quotient rising steadily over the six years that she has attended the ball.

"We encourage elegance and gowns and spell out formal attire on the invitations," she says. "This year I saw more beading and sequins along with a lot of black. Many women wore all their jewelry and looked wonderful."

She, too, sees the influx of a new set of younger people at opera events as a sign that special occasion dressing is making a comeback.

There are, however, regional variations on what constitutes "dressed up." Blass is one of those rare designers who travel the country to get a sense of a city and to meet and chat up his gals.

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