The most unusual and elaborate gowns seen in the past month in Washington are not for sale and will not be worn to the inaugural balls. The dresses, made in styles up to 5,000 years old, belong to Dar Al Azia Al Iraqiya, the Fashion House of Iraq. Every three or four years, this organization, run by the Iraqi government, travels to several American cities and many countries abroad, showing its collection of costumes.

"Dar Al Azia is attempting to bring the artistic heritage of past civilization to life through fashion," says Joan Cole, public affairs specialist for the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, which sponsored a Dar Al Azia presentation here earlier this month.

"I hope this will be the first step toward a greater exchange of culture between our two countries," said Nizar Hamdoon, ambassador designate for Iraq, at that presention. His comments were met with applause by the audience of Iraqis and Americans, who understood his reference to the recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Iraq. Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, the permanent observer for the Arab League to the United Nations and the chief representative of the Arab League in the United States, attended the same presentation with his wife, Hala Maksoud, president of the Arab Women's Council.

Dar Al Azia showed the gowns to audiences at the Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History, sponsored by the Resident Associate Program, and at the Washington Hilton, sponsored by the Meridian House International, the Middle East Institute and the American Institute for Islamic Affairs. Iraqi models wore costumes inspired by the ancient architecture, manuscripts, religious beliefs and folklore of Iraq and performed traditional Iraqi dances.

One group of costumes was copied from an Assyrian royal procession carved in stone at the Iraqi museum in Baghdad. Another ensemble of flowing harem pants, veils and beads was inspired by the tale of Scheherazade. As slides of Islamic wall tiles or hieroglyphics were shown, the models appeared in gowns embroidered in the same patterns.

Founded in 1970 by the Ministry of Culture and Information, Dar Al Azia draws on the talents of designers, artists, historians and musicians. It is headed by Feryal El-Kelidar, who choreographed the dancing as well as directed the show. "All of the fashions are handmade," says El-Kelidar. "The fabrics, which include silk, wool and cotton, are hand-woven and dyed in Iraq."

According to Samir Haddad, in charge of promotion and coordination for presentations here, "some of the dresses can take up to a year to complete. As more and more of our history is uncovered, we must work harder to make the tiniest details precise."

Although most of the clothes are modeled after those of ancient times and are not worn today, some of the styles, such as the hashemi, a flowing dress similar to a caftan, are still worn for cultural events and festive occasions such as weddings. Otherwise, as one of the models remarked, young women in Baghdad are wearing blue jeans.