French Ambassador Bernard Vernier-Palliez, tall and elegant, wore white tie, tails, a monocle and a large flamboyant handlebar mustache. Unfortunately, to eat, he had to take off the mustache.

Denise Vernier-Palliez, his wife, came in a red brocade 1880s dress from the Musee Grevin--Paris' waxwork museum. "It's very historically correct. The watch was my grandmother's," she said. The French ambassador and his wife were honorary chairs of the Corcoran Gallery's Moulin Rouge gala Saturday night to benefit the Corcoran School of Art.

The stone lions who guard the grandiose entrance looked a bit surprised at the gaudy sign over the door: "Moulin Rouge," translated above by a red mill symbol.

Inside was a wonderful, eclectic collection of people that only the Corcoran can attract. Old Washington society, diplomats, rich art patrons, interior designers, artists, hairdressers, Virginia landed gentry, women in dinner jackets, a 6-foot-3-inch man in a red ball gown, and at least one senator added for starch.

Perhaps the fanciest dress of the season--huge hats and flossy dresses, many from the more expensive antique clothing shops--made even familiar faces and figures seem exotic and different.

Corcoran president David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife, Carmen, and University of Maryland president John Toll and his wife, Deborah, asserted their rights to wear conservative evening clothes. But Polly Logan, a socialite and Art Barn sponsor, wore a huge black hat and a full-skirted black dress. If you gave her the slightest encourgement she'd show her garters--one red satin, one diamond. Around her neck she wore a fabulous antique diamond necklace.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said he came to the ball "after a day at the Senate on the Grenada question." Warner said he voted in favor of an inquiry into the government's handling of the press there. Warner, standing near the entrance to the party, found himself shaking hands with all the guests. Two or three times he said with a laugh: "I'm not the receiving line."

Rose Marie Bogley, standing nearby, had on a Bill Blass dress that might have been designed for a Toulouse-Lautrec poster: it had a deep V-shaped cutout back and huge, fluffy sleeves.

Lawyer Tony Hope, when asked about his black satin, red-lined cloak, said, "I made it myself out of $50 bills." Michael Botwinick, Corcoran director, was resplendent in a red brocade vest.

Dorothy Marks, cochairwoman of the event with Candace Somerville, gave full credit for the evening's innovations to Marjorie Principato, the chairwoman, who was hard to find under her great floppy hat.

Artist Susan Firestone ornamented her dress and cape with Matisse cutouts. And hairdresser Roi Barnard lived up to his name with a costume worn in 1968 by the Mardi Gras king that was borrowed, Barnard said, from art dealer Rudy Agra, who came in a formal Japanese kimono.

The evening was notable as much for entertainment as for conversation and dancing: a French haute couture ball gown fashion show, a cancan by the Washington Ballet and remarkable dances by Ernesto Diaz and Bobby Gene Suto. And if that wasn't enough going on, a silent auction of "The Best of France" was held on the upstairs balcony.

About 600 or so guests paid $100 each and some paid $25 more to be patrons for the evening, which for many ended well after one o'clock. But everyone went home knowing that with the change to daylight-saving time they could sleep an hour longer.