JUST WHEN THE 1980s were shaping up as a decade in which it would never be necessary to set an alarm clock, Vanity Fair is back.

The giddy magazine of the Roaring Twenties folded in 1936, but not before it had cavorted through star-system Hollywood, poked fun at potentates and run the gamut of human emotions as if they were hurdles blocking the way to the champagne.

The new Vanity Fair, 290 pages thick, $3 a copy and heralded by a $10 million, 18-month development campaign, goes on sale March 1. It looks at a glance like Vogue (there are a remarkable 168 pages of ads), offers a week's worth of reading from today's best-known writers--Nora Ephron, Calvin Trillin, Gore Vidal among them--and includes the entire text of " Chronicle of a Death Foretold," the new novel by Gabriel Garci'a Ma'rquez, winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The promotion campaign--featuring the writer John Irving in his wrestling suit--declared that the new Vanity Fair "will capture the sparkle and excitement of our times, our culture" and is "a magazine whose time has come . . . again."

Already it has seemed to capture the advertising of our times. The first employe hired by Conde' Nast Publications when it decided to revive Vanity Fair was Joseph E. Corr Jr., the publisher. A former combat paratrooper and veteran marketing man for Hublein whiskey and Philip Morris, Corr gives the impression of having shouted "Geronimo!" when this assignment was handed to him.

"We're going right for the Yankelovich meritocracy," he averred enthusiastically last week. "Affluent, upscale--but 10 years younger, with all that that implies. Usually, when people think of affluent, they think of Mrs. Gittfuzzy, who's 87 years old and a millionaire and who buys a lot of refrigerators. But we don't want the denture-breath oligarchy. We don't want any letters coming in written in the Palmer method with a shaky hand.

"Frankly, when I first signed on, some of my peers in advertising said to me, 'Joe, is this a fashion magazine?' Hey, I'm an ex-paratrooper. We had to reverse that image fast, which we did with our prototype issue. No, it's a magazine of literature, politics, the arts and popular culture, and that's why we showed them John Irving, Twyla Tharp and the AT&T Building.

"See, there is a difference now between affluence and the emulated elite. The Vanity Fair audience is the emulated elite. They are the ones who are starting things. The New York Times does two or three little business biographies every day in its business section, about people who are important. I would have guessed their average age was 56. But no--in the past 20 weeks their average age is 43.2. They are young, they are the ones with money and power. If you want to revitalize your product, you want those people. American marketers don't need another coffeetable magazine. But boy, do they need to reach the people who are starting things."

Richard Locke, the editor of Vanity Fair, is in charge of finding in the decade around him stories and pictures to live up to the vote of confidence of all those advertisers and subscribers. He is 41, former deputy editor of The New York Times Book Review, and possessed of a cool demeanor and a corner office.

He is challenged to deny that, despite his handsome new magazine, the decade of the 1980s is in fact a tar pit of a decade in which the arts of politics, literature and conversation are caught by the ankles in a rising, hardening ooze that threatens to preserve them, like the fossils of La Brea, for study by some more vibrant generation to come.

"I don't understand the question," Locke says.

Well, the new Vanity Fair seems a marvelous apparatus for examining what is going on today--but is there anything going on today worth examining?

"I think there is a lot going on," Locke says. "There's a lot begging for satire and investigation. There's a real journalistic and literary opportunity in all the wacky chaos and noise."

Let's have a look, then, at the first issue. The cover is a watercolor Pan piping Frank Stella-like abstractions. Inside, running pages of brief arts reviews lead up to the first article, a column by Calvin Trillin, who complains that he wasn't upscale enough to be invited to subscribe by Corr. John Leonard, the sole staff writer and reportedly obtained from The Times at $80,000 per annum, writes in an experimental style about America today, apparently from foggy Japan. There are successive one-page photographs of a Roy Lichtenstein painting, Debra Winger, Kevin Kline and Michael Graves' Portland Building, followed by brief captions. Gore Vidal has been to the Gobi desert in Outer Mongolia and has found an Americaphile there; an excerpt from Nora Ephron's new novel seems to send up an old husband or two; Robert Stone writes about Joan Didion in El Salvador; blacks in sitcoms are examined by Darryl Pinckney, who asks, of the demand for positive minority images, "Was it a just but doomed cause, given the medium?"

There is an arresting quarterfold layout of American coal miners photographed by Richard Avedon. Scattered throughout the magazine are renderings and pictures of the notables of our day--John Huston, Laurie Anderson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Kate Nelligan, V.S. Pritchett, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep--with captions to evoke their charm. The magazine closes with a reprint from Vanity Fair, 1933, in which the late James M. Cain visits Malibu Beach.

Although a point of view on its material does not emerge, although the layouts have yet to settle down, Vanity Fair is chockablock and it is a banquet. If it does not present a view of the world that is demonstrably different from what we have assumed, well, that is of course the problem at a time when everybody has already been famous for 15 minutes.

One of the newly famous, Debra Winger, the actress, of "Cannery Row" and "An Officer and a Gentleman," has been selected for celebration. She is described somewhat fulsomely as "a sort of variorum text of screen beauty and sensuality" who "stirs up memories of a long line of romantic beauties at their carnal best: Susan Hayward, Shelley Winters, Joanne Woodward, Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth, but especially Ava Gardner . . ."

All right, if Vanity Fair says so. But why Winger?

"We picked her because there was a common feeling of great excitement about her on the part of the editorial staff and, of course, because the Annie Leibovitz picture was so good," says Locke.

Locke says it doesn't bother him in the least that some of the people Vanity Fair highlights have been widely exposed already--an inevitable condition in a time when each day begins with three morning talk shows competing for guests--or have just been around a very long time, as has the redoubtable John Huston.

"The freestanding photograph of Huston is an image, and the extended caption gives you a new insight into his career," Locke explains. "And besides, V.S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Hardwick haven't been on the talk shows.

"Look, we're trying to reinvent what can be done with a monthly magazine. How pictures and writing can interact with each other. A counterpoint between the verbal and visual in a new context. A magazine doesn't have speed. It paints in broad strokes. That's the Vanity Fair way of doing things. We want to invite, seduce, in a way that's both verbal and visual. And the largest counterpoint of all is Avedon--purely visual American people, real coal miners, presented in a way that is tremendously powerful. That's something we can do. You look at those pictures, and then you look again."

When James M. Cain went to Malibu Beach for Vanity Fair in 1933, the beach of the movie stars was as unfamiliar as the planet Mars. He scored a humorous satirical success just by listing what he saw at a cocktail party: "four actresses in blue pajamas; 1 actress in bathing suit; 1 actress in ceremonial Chinese robe weighing ten pounds: cost, $2,000 . . ." Today, Cable News Network would be there, covering the party and Cain, too. Isn't that going to be a problem for Vanity Fair?

"Give a little more credit to the writers, won't you?" says Locke. "There's such a divergence of experience and observation we can draw on. Don't think of us as journalists, or as a TV camera. Think of us as a magazine that's trying to conceive of the world in the freshest way possible."

Well, is there anything fresh about Malibu Beach today?

"Sure. It depends on who you send to look at it. You could send an investigative reporter, like David McLintock, and expect to learn something new. If you sent Gore Vidal, you'd likely get a very witty and mordant piece."

As for his magazine's point of view, Locke shrugs. "If you want to understand what we're up to, take the name seriously. There's skepticism, there's humor, there's magic. It's a fair.

"A magazine is really a question. The question is, what do we think of today?"

Whatever we think of today, there is no going back to 1925, when the first Vanity Fair was in its glory.

There were giants on the earth that year, and no denying it. Jascha Heifetz was 23; Thomas Hardy was 85; Will Rogers, Grantland Rice and Bill Tilden were adored, and so were John Barrymore and Mary Astor and Charlie Chaplin. Wit was in vogue, and when Vanity Fair asked a group of artists to write their own epitaphs, W.C. Fields contributed, "I Would Rather be Living in Philadelphia," and Dorothy Parker, "Excuse my Dust!" It was a year shocked by the death of George Bellows, the robust American artist; and when he died Vanity Fair noted that "his enthusiasm for the prize ring amounted to a passion." Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Gershwin . . .

Now, bombarded with cold facts, disabused of our fantasies, made privy to repellent intimacies about every potential hero, we have lost the opportunity for distant admiration. We know more about Bill Tilden now than his best friends did then.

Mr. Bellows, Howard Cosell would have to ask today, have you any idea of the corruption in prizefighting? Mr. Hemingway, Dick Cavett would have to ask today, how does it feel to be larger than life? Hemingway's reply, if like the ones he gave then, would make him a laughingstock. What used to take audiences 40 years to realize about their heroes, they now realize in 40 minutes. It can be a burden.

The first Vanity Fair was the voice of an innocent time, and when the Depression came and Adolf Hitler turned out not to be funny, it disappeared.

Now it is back, it would seem, by popular demand. Those 168 pages of ads are a clear record for a debut issue and have brought in an estimated $1.4 million for the first time out.

The circulation goal was announced as 250,000, but when a "first-issue-free" mailing went out, more than 600,000 readers signed up. "We got bigger by spontaneous combustion," says Corr, the publisher.

If Vanity Fair is on the mark, the awakening of the 1980s may not be so rude after all. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Editor Richard Locke. Picture 3, Publisher Joseph E. Corr Jr. Photos courtesy of Vanity Fair; Picture 4, Red Owens, an Oklahoma oil field worker. By Richard Aredon; Picture 5, Kate Nelligan. By Bert Stein, in Vanity Fair. Copyright (c) 1983, Conde Nast Publications Inc.