No clothing is a bargain -- no matter how many times the price tag has been slashed -- unless it is something that you really plan to wear.

While the reduced-price items currently on sales racks in Washington stores offer clothes at wholesale cost (usually half the normal retail price), some of the best buys are items that bring an element of newness into the assortment already in your closet. And they extend the wearing possibilities of what you own.

At this moment, few drastic changes are taking place in fashion. Rather, there are new ways of wearing some articles of clothing designers have been playing with for a few seasons. Culottes, blousons and tunics, for example, while hardly brand new ideas, can inject freshness into a wardrobe that has not made use of them. Because the look has been developing for several seasons, these items can be found by the serious sale-shopper among the current markdowns.

Since this is such a fuzzy period in fashion with lots of options, including long skirts and short ones that are equally appropriate, it is almost easier to pinpoint what to avoid than what to add. Skip the glitz, for example. Those "looks" worth passing up are clothes threaded in bronze and gold, particularly meant for day wear, and the abundance of ruffles on everything.

On the other hand, among those items it would pay to scout the sale racks for:

* Petticoats: To be worn now under full skirts. Later, some versions can be worn as skirts themselves.

* Tunics: An easy, clean look to be worn over slim skirts or pants, belted low on the hips or not belted at all.

Vests: They offer a contrast of texture and color and serve, as well, to control the full shape of blouses or shirts.

* Short culottes (or knee-length culottes that can be shortened a bit): They bridge the gap between pants and skirts and provide a fresh element for spring. (Long culottes should not be shortened since they already provide a welcome alternative, as do above-the-knee and long skirts.)

* Articles in white and black: These colors have become increasingly important as relief from all the brights.

* Pantyhose: In bright colors, pastels or black and white -- in fact, in any color except neutral tan -- they can refresh any outfit for daytime or evening.

* Belts: They are among the best buys, particularly those that are waist-cinching or that sit low on the hips and give the effect of a dropped waistline.

Keep in mind what you already have hanging in your closet before making that "final-sale" purchase. The new suit that requires both a new blouse and a new pair of shoes may wipe out all of the money you saved by buying it on sale. And the marvelous belt that doesn't work with anything you own is hardly a good buy, especially if it only gets to look pretty in the back of your closet.

Many women shop sales with the same philosophy that most men follow in buying clothes -- replacing favorite items rather than buying something new. It is harder to do in women's clothing since style changes as minimal as collar width and sleeve shape occur far more frequently.

To buy classic styles and put them away, you must make certain resolutions: That you will not change your clothing preferences, and you will maintain your size. But you also get a guarantee: Whatever you buy now is sure to cost more next year.