In preparation for the Inaugural Ball, you may wish to know what is proper dress on high state occasions.

Miss Manners is assuming such possible mild curiosity on the part of those planning to stay snugly and sensibly at home, rather than those who plan to attend. This distinction is not, however, made because she assumes that those invited to the event know how to dress for it.

Having attended the last seven terms' worth of inaugural balls, Miss Manners is aware that: one, some people who go have eccentric notions of what constitutes formal dress; and two, some guests who have perfectly correct notions nevertheless dress for the practicalities of the situation, rather than by the rules.

The fact is that American inaugural balls tend to be rough and chaotic occasions, and veterans of them know better than to wear properly frail clothing, as they are aware that they will be crushed, pushed and stepped on during the principal activity of these events. That is not dancing, but standing around in crowds jostling for a good view as the presidential party arrives for cameo appearances at many different ball sites.

Anyway, there is a great deal of cowardice now about requiring high formality, whatever you may have read to the contrary about the current administration. White tie has all but disappeared from public life. Neither inaugurations nor state dinners at the White House are now considered that formal.

(Whatever you may assume about Miss Manners, she regrets this not because she would be happiest if expensive and uncomfortable clothing were required for all occasions including surfing parties and dinner at home alone, but simply because she believes in a variety of styles for those who care to enjoy them. Besides, her 18-button gloves are lonely.)

Here then, as a historical curiosity, are the really proper rules about formal dress.

The most formal evening dress is white tie, or the orchestra conductor outfit, rather than the waiter outfit, which is black tie.

Except for naive young bridegrooms, gentlemen usually get this right when they attempt it, because few of them own the clothing and the rental stores give them a package deal. This consists of tail coat, white pique waistcoat and tie, black cuffless pants with black stripe down the side, held up by suspenders, stiff white shirt with wing collar, black patent leather slip-on shoes, gold, platinum or pearl studs, a pocket watch rather than a wristwatch, and no decorative handkerchiefs on display.

There should be a real handkerchief in the pocket, because, as was once explained to Miss Manners, "a gentleman never knows when he might have to dry a lady's tears." She had the distinct impression that the gentleman's also causing the tears was not out of the question.

For outdoors, one adds a cape or formal overcoat, white silk scarf, chamois or buckskin gloves and high silk hat.

Black tie, which Miss Manners knows as informal, and practically everyone else in the world now calls formal, substitutes the black dinner jacket with matching trousers (also cuffless, but with two-stripe width braid), pleated shirt, black bow tie and cummerbund, and a homburg instead of a Fred Astaire hat.

No gentlemen would have any color except black or white on at night, or be caught dead in ruffles.

Ladies have unfortunately ceased to make distinctions in their own dress between white tie and black tie, but Miss Manners does not consider that the differences have therefore ceased to exist.

Ball dresses are low-cut and wide-skirted -- lots of bosom but no hint as to where the hips might be hidden -- and are worn with jewels and often hair ornaments. No decent person deigns to notice whether the jewels are real.

To make up for the nakedness up top, or perhaps to emphasize it, the arms are discreetly covered with above-the-elbow white kid or doeskin gloves, until refreshment time. A true lady would rather die than touch food or drink with a gloved hand, and would never even acknowledge the possibility that a civilized person would wear jewelry on top of gloves. Watches, leather shoes or bags are never worn in the evening.

Black tie, for the lady, means a dinner dress. The difference is that the bosom and hips are reversed. No, that isn't quite what Miss Manners means. She means that the bosom is covered, because the dress has a high neckline, and the outline of the hips reappears, because the long skirt hangs fairly straight.

What happens when you mix the two, for a black tie dance, is that the ladies wear ball dresses, knowing they will otherwise grow old before they recoup their investments, and the gentlemen come in dinner jackets.

Oh, dear, it is getting to be late and Miss Manners had better stop this before she gets even giddier. She hopes that this has amused those comfortably at home, and does not wish to hear that her rules are stuffy. They are intended to be. Q My two sisters and I, each in our fifties and unmarried, live together. What is my responsibility when shower and wedding invitations requiring an "R.S.V.P." and "number of people coming" are addressed "The Joneses"?

I feel absolutely insulted that the people sending these invitations are too cheap to address a separate invitation personally to each of us when they all expect a present from each one of us. I have 23 nieces and nephews, and this is just the beginning! A Miss Manners hates to be in the position of defending people who send out cards demanding "number of people coming," but she is afraid that their method of addressing you is almost correct.

Adults sharing a household may all be invited on one invitation. Married couples always are, and stranger combinations than that. However, such people may, and generally do, combine their resources to send a single present.

The "almost" is because the correct address for three sisters is: Miss Jones (for the eldest), Miss Tatiana Jones and Miss Anastasia Jones.