The New Elegance is among us, as prominent as a plop of caviar on an all-white plate.

Tiffany's heralds it with a picture book devoted to luxurious table settings. A vodka manufacturer issues a pamphlet on "Bringing New Elegance to the '80s," with the caution that "if you are setting a 'country table,' don't use vermeil flatware with pottery plates."

Liberal and conservative columnists argue about the White House's china policy -- spending over $200,000 on 220 place settings -- with the same intensity they once dedicated to the spitting match between the Mainland and Taiwan.

"While there may not have been a parade of millionaires at the White House, nobody doubts the limousine-and-fur crowd has replaced the Li'l Abner gang," writes Joseph Kraft, while James J. Kilpatrick rises to the defense of pomp:

"The professional bellyachers and bleeding hearts who are caterwauling about the 'opulence' of the Reagan administration have failed to recognize two aspects of the American character. I have in mind an innate admiration for pomp and circumstances, and a deep contempt for phoniness and sham . . . " exemplified, he writes, by Jimmy Carter, who "set out deliberately to contrive an image of a president who was just one of the common people."

Pity the common people, seduced and abandoned by a succession of American presidents beginning with the decidedly reserved George Washington who entertained most formally and the democratic Jefferson, who drew up a "Rules of Etiquette," stating that "In social circles all are equal . . . 'pell-mell-and-next-the-door' form the basis of etiquette in the societies of this country."

His refusal to recognize rank made a shambles of receptions and offended many diplomats, one of whom showed up in gold lace and dress sword to be met by a negligently-dressed Jefferson wearing down-at-the-heel slippers.

But how merrily we swing, for soon we are in the arms of John Quincy Adams, replete with rare wines and choice foods. And then, swish, we are back on the other side as Andrew Jackson dots the White House with spittoons, and none too soon for a Washington society appalled at the president's inaugural night reception for 20,000 expectorating plain folks.

Martin Van Buren had a chef from London and ate with gold spoons.

Calvin Coolidge served ice water in paper cups and recounted in his autobiography, "My personal social functions consisted of the White House breakfasts, which were attended by 15 to 25 members of the House and Senate and others, who gathered around my table at 8:30 o'clock in the morning to partake of a meal which ended with wheat cakes and Vermont maple syrup."

So it goes. The patrician follows the plebe and neither pleases.

Roosevelt, like many rich politicians, worked so hard at erasing his patrician image that when the king and queen of England visited him at Hyde Park, he served them hot dogs. During his administration, it was said that one cabinet officer -- not wanting to be criticized for lush living during the Depression but unwilling to forego the convenience of a limousine -- purchased a taxicab to ferry him around and hired the driver as chauffeur.

The danger of living like a poodle while barking like a mutt is that someone always catches you. Better to go whole hog (barbecued for the common man, ground up into pate' for the patrician), and be exactly what you are.

In the White House the question of style has more to do with the image the First Couple wants to project than with its effect on guests. Whether dinner is served on pottery plates to the accompaniment of Willie Nelson or on Lenox china with the Joffrey Ballet, dinner at the White House is a formal affair. It is official entertainment, an invitation to join the elite and if the invitation descends on Betty Boop of Boise it is only because she has been chosen, with appropriate publicity, to represent the average American.

Like all formal affairs, and certainly all official ones, such dinners create a distance between people, putting them on their guard and warning them they must live up to the setting.

Spill wine at a casual affair and no one notices. Knock over a glass of burgundy at a formal dinner and you are seen to be, however briefly, below standard.

In Washington to entertain does not mean to amuse. There are too many dinners, official or not, where, we are assured, the people are not having fun. They are working, intent not on whether the cherries are flambe' but whether Iran is.

But what about the unofficial rest of us? Does the call to exchange guilt for gilt mean that we must banish the Rolling Rock beer and store up on vintage wines?

Like parenthood, elegance should not be lightly embarked upon.

One friend, hoping to help his wife with a dinner party, ordered up a last-minute maid from a supposedly reputable service. She arrived, a stubborn, wall-eyed woman with a style all her own. Plop went the potatoes on the plate. Plop went the beans as she marched around the table with the aim and grace of a Little League pitcher.

Or the woman who served dinner in a bower of flowers only to discover that her cleverly planned dessert of peach mousse in flower pots was leaking out the bottom and spreading all over the table.

Deciding to declare for elegance is like making the best-dressed list: You are no longer allowed runs in your stockings.

If you can do it, by all means go ahead. Because, of course, there is a reverse side. The formality that puts people on their marks can make for a memorable evening -- when the crystal glints in the light and the linen stretches clean and white, when the wines are exceptional and the food superb, the conversation too will seem to rise above the ordinary.

For one evening, you will be caught in the candles' glow, sharing with fellow guests the feeling of being among the chosen.