China dolls danced the length of the Corcoran Gallery atrium last night wearing hand-screened printed chiffon gowns that floated like animated art.

It was, said many of the guests later, Washington's most spectacular fashion show in recent memory.

In fact, Corcoran Gallery Director Peter Marzio was so moved by the visual effect that he dubbed the creations of British fashion designer Zandra Rhoades "living works of art."

"Though it is not the same as fine art," said Marzio, "it sometimes is more intimate and people have more respect for it."

More than 400 art fashion lovers paid $30 each to benefit the Corcoran. Many also came away new fans of the innovative English designer.

Rhodes, once identified with haute punk, stayed out of sight throughout the show that peeked out from a gallery-turned-dressing-room from time to time. She was unmistakable with her shocking pink hair and "pagoda" eyebrows.

If the 120 designs in the show bore the imprint of the Rhodes imagination, so did the production. She had made two trips from London to organize and had spent almost two days around the clock this week in rehearsals.

Tuesday night she left a dinner in her honor given by Val Cook, fashion director of Saks-Jandel which sponsored the show, to return to the gallery, where she stayed until 3 a.m. working out the details of choreography and lighting. And just before the show she was applying the Rhodes touch to the eyebrows of the 14 models who paraded her clothes.

Rhodes' collection of dresses, coats and sweaters reflected her January trip to the People's Republic of China. There were no Mao jackets, but there were hair chops, pompon pigtails, quilted jackets and elegant satin and chiffon face masks expressing Rhodes' fanciful view of how to cope with a Peking dust storm.

"But masks really aren't a very bad idea for cold weather," she said before the show started.

In one sequence models took tiny steps as they paced the specially constructed runway almost the length of a basketball court -- "like bound feet," said Bill Marx, wife of Saks-Jandel co-owner Henry Marx.

The show unveiled Rhodes' first Made-in-America coat collection, ski sweaters, cocktail wear and exquisitely hand-cut and hand-embroidered couture evening gowns (whose prices start at $1,300).

The gallery setting provoked Rhodes to admit that "the most heartbreaking thins is that people don't see these clothes as works of art even though they take as much time and effort as any painting here." She flipped her hand in the direction of a Tom Downing acrylic.

The Corcoran's Marzio offered a rebuttal. "By definition an aspect of clothing is its timeliness," he said. "One thing about art is its timelessness."

Rhodes would have disagreed. So would have many of the Zandra Rhodes collectors who war her dresses year after year. The include Evangeline Bruce, Gloria Vanderbilt and Jacqueline Onassis.

Dorothy Lapadula, with her husband, Michael Lapadula, showed up wearing two long black feathers in her hair "in honor of the occasion."

Robin Jacobsen, whose architect husband, Hugh, was off in Paris "renovating" the Hotel Talleyrand, called the evening the "sparkliest" she had seen in ages. She wondered if Rhodes was the designer currently responsible for the return of wide shoulders.

"I liked them the first time around," she said, puffing an herbal cigarette whose distinctive aroma resembled the illegal variety.

"I smell pot," said a woman standing near Jacobsen, lifting her nose and sniffing the air.

"How do you know what it smells like?" asked Jacobsen.

Smoke of another persuasion (dry ice) lent a mystical aura to the show's grand finale which featured the traditional bridal party. After that, Zandra Rhodes came on stage to a stnading ovation.

In the front row was Mary Henderson, the wife of the new British ambassador, and Welsh designer Laura Ashley and her husband, Bernard. Lady Henderson said the only reason she did not already own a Rhodes dress was because she had so little time to shop between diplomatic posts.

Husbands appeared to be as captivated by the Rhodes collection as their wives.

"Mu hasband is ready to go buy one with me," said Mrs. Robert Dudley, head of the Corcoran's Women's Committee, which staged the benefits. "He couldn't choose between the yellows and the reds."

"I liked the peach colors myself, but then I'm the conservative type," attorney Ben Fisher told her.

Laura Ashley said she was "speechless" over the beauty of the clothes. Her husband wasn't.

"I'm divorcing Laura and marrying Zandra," he said, laughing. His wife whose simple countryish print dresses are a direct contrast to the Rhodes fantasy styles, smiled sweetly, if confidently.

"Thank goodness you still have to have something to wear to bathe the baby in," she sighed.