Bill Blass couldn't keep from laughing.

"Do you mean to tell me," asked the designer, "that I have stepped out of the shower, dripping soapy water on my rug, so I can tell you that I have not sold one gown that I know has been bought to be worn to the inaugural ball?" He hung up the phone, and called back minutes later. "I have the funniest feeling," he said. "The gals that I know are going down to Washington will get done up in the clothes they already own."

In spite of a dampened carpet, Blass could afford to laugh about the lack of business so far in new gowns to wear to the inaugural balls. A key participant, Nancy Reagan, has ordered a number of new things to be delivered in time for the festivities, and undoubtedly one Blass design will show up in her inaugural wardrobe.

But elsewhere, retailers and designers fear they will take a bath on the long dresses now on the racks awaiting customers with tickets to the inaugural events.

"Don't quote me, but can you imagine that even with drastic markdowns and near giveaway prices, we haven't sold one gown for the inaugural?" said a despondent manager of local specialty stores. "I think many customers started buying clothes when prices were cut drastically before Christmas. They don't seem much interested in buying anything else."

For many of those returning for the second go-round of inaugural balls saluting the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the previous experience of crowded spaces with little room for strutting and showing off new gowns seems to have curbed shopping enthusiasm. "No one saw what I wore the first time. Why would I bother buying something new for no one else to see again?" said one Washingtonian, a veteran of six inaugural balls. She had only one bit of advice for those attending their first: "Wear comfortable shoes."

Store windows displaying formal dresses and tuxedos will, retailers hope, lure out-of-town visitors to buy new evening duds when they arrive next week for the inaugural festivities. "A lot of people can't buy this kind of dress in their home town, and will splurge when they get to Washington," said Kert Rosenkoetter, general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. "At least that's what I've been told they did four years ago," he added.

Several women ordered gowns from James Galanos, the designer of Nancy Reagan's inaugural ballgown, while he toured stores here this fall, including Neiman-Marcus. "I can't say for sure just which things were for the inaugural," said Galanos, who will be honored Sunday by the Council of Fashion Designers of America at a dinner in New York. "But once the election was over, I assumed that many of the gowns were ordered for the ball. We've been extremely busy, but I can't say if it is specifically for the inaugural."

Many women have bought Adolfo's "Camille" dress -- the designer's name for the black velvet cape-collared gown adorned with a white silk camellia that many of his faithful bought this season. But a spokesperson for the firm says she's not sure just who will be wearing it that night.

Fabrice, who specializes in glamorous gowns for extravagant occasions, can count on one hand -- in fact, one finger -- the number of dresses made to date with the inaugural ball in mind. According to his assistant, George Barlow, Fabrice has created a jet-beaded tank top and hand-screened ink-splotch print sarong skirt for young socialite Cornelia Guest, a friend of the designer.

"It is a time for great luxury, a time to be dressed to the teeth," said Barlow, speaking for Fabrice. "This year, looking luxurious is having more shimmer than glitter." The shimmering silk sarong Guest will be wearing, he indicated, is a perfect example.

According to Blass, women can dress as gala and glitzy as they like for the inaugural ball. "Wear a big skirt if you want. Wear long gloves if you want. Get as done up as you please," he said. "Just because it is a tight squeeze, that doesn't mean you shouldn't wear your best."

He had advice for men as well: Wear a tuxedo, but not white tie. "The president and anyone close to the president wears white tie. For others, it is pretentious."

And still more advice from Blass: Women shouldn't wear pants, and short dresses are inappropriate. "Even Democrats should know better than that," he said, and raced back into the shower.