Oh, what perfumed fauna you could find at the Symphony Ball last night. Snake skins! Lynx, rabbit, mink, fox! Feathers!

Local wisdom has it that the reason people go to the annual white-tie affair is to raise money for the National Symphony Orchestra. Certainly, the anticipated $150,000 is going to help out the financially troubled NSO. But among the other reasons people go to this most status-filled of the Washington status balls is to dress to kill.

"I shopped all over Washington last year, but I finally went to New York and found a one-and-only Pauline Trigere," said Betsy Rea, the 1979 ball chairman. "This year, I'm in Madame Paul, made-to-order by St. Aubin -- that's S, T, period, then A, U, B, I, N -- de Paris. Oui."

This year's chairman was Barbara Allbritton, wife of the man who two days ago agreed to pay $27 million for the largest block of shares in Riggs National Bank. More on him later. As for his wife, she spent a large part of a year organizing the ball, which held 1,260 people and took up a Sheraton Washington hotel room that appeared to be the size of a football field.

In fact, standing on the steps leading into the darkened ballroom, watching the snake skins and feathers dance below, you had a sense of some grand empire celebrating between the epic wars. Either that, or a very dressy crowd at Grand Central Station.

The Greek Embassy sponsored the event, the reason you could see slides of the Aegean and the Acropolis beamed onto a huge overhead screen. The tables were mirror glass, the flowers white lilies, the meat red, the indoor pine trees covered with twinkling Christmas lights.

"Gorgeous," said Enriquillo Antonio del Rosario, the ambassador from the Dominican Republic. But he wasn't talking about the room.

"I've lost 20 pounds," responded Betty Hayes, whose husband is a lawyer and related to the late president Rutherford B. Hayes. "I starve myself and play paddle tennis every day."

"gorgeous," said the ambassador.

Lots of other ambassadors showed up, as did members of the Congress, Treasury Secretary G. William Miller, Energy Secretary Charles Duncan and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes. In years back, the president himself used to come -- one of the reasons this ball, more than any other in town, ranks as a socialite's paradise. But it's not a place for beginners.

In other words, to get invited to this ball (if you're not an ambassador, senator, etc.), you've got to make your way through some of the dozen or so others. And they're just black-tie, not white.

"We've just never gone to the Symphony Ball before," explained Gail Siegel, wife of a Bethesda oral surgeon. "It was time. I've been chairman of the Wolf Trap Ball and was active a few years ago with the Corcoran Ball, so I wanted to go to this one.People who support the symphony have always been among the elite in Washington -- the old money, so to speak."

Here's what some of this money said:

"We have smaller houses, with smaller property. It's easier for us. We're away a lot."

"Yes. It's very hard when you have to be here and there."

That conversation occurred during the cocktail hour, when people were stuffed -- like the baby eggplant on the dinner menu -- into a small reception area. Over in the receiving line, people were watching the doors to see what outfit arrived on whom.

"There are a lot more toney-looking women this year," observed Roberta Cohen, who described herself as "a plain little old lady who lives in Bethesda."

"Did you see the outfit with the pants?" Elaine Glassman, who describes herself as an "on-and-off" painter, asked. "Don't miss it -- that's the best."

The receiving line these two women were standing in took a lot of wiggly turns, but eventually made it up to the Allrittons, who were shaking hands along with Greek Ambassador John Tzounis and his wife. As it turned out, shaking 1,260 hands and kissing who knows how many cheeks took more than an hour.

"My back is killing me," said Allbritton, the former Washington Star publisher who announced the $27 million Riggs deal Thursday. "I'd never run for mayor."

As for the Riggs deal, he would say nothing about whether he plans to propose himself for the board of directors, or whether he wants any day-to-day management role at the bank. "Don't know a thing about that," he said. "Nothing. And I don't even know how good that is. With my wife as chairman of the ball, I can't even get a fried egg in my own house."