THE MERIDIAN HOUSE is a walk-in catalogue for "Five Centuries of Italian Textiles." Sixty panels hold a hundred textile fragments, along with photos of paintings that show the textiles in use, from the 1300s to the 1800s.

These fragments of wall hangings, dresses and vestments in serpentine patterns feebly echo a former sumptuousness. And they underscore fashion's foibles.

When Italian merchants first brought textiles from the East, Italian weavers imitated the patterns without realizing their significance. Says curator Rosalia Fanelli, who came from Florence for the show's opening, "Sayings from the Koran, such as 'There is only one God and Allah is his name,' were woven by Italian weavers not understanding it was writing, but thinking it was design."

Thus Islamic writing decorated liturgical vestments, so that priests unwittingly advertised the infidel while saying Mass.

Royalty -- including their carriages, sedan chairs and children -- the clergy and the merchants donned some of the finest textiles ever made. The ornately decorated silk, velvet, linen and wool were not for the man in the street, who wore a coarse cloth called fustian.

But the wealthy weren't above wearing clothing with holes in it. Frayed cloth was considered very elegant in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cut into the fabric with special shears, regularly spaced holes alternated with rows of embroidery. A portrait shows Louis XIII wearing such a costume with great aplomb.

Although the exhibit demonstrates fashion's changes, it also shows its durability. In Renaissance wear, the pomegranate pattern, which looked like a stylized Chinese lotus, decorated the red velvet ceremonial stoles of senators of Venice for generations. Since the pomegranate design meant prestige, it dominated high fashion for 150 years. Contrast this, observes Fanelli, with today's attitude: "If you're wearing a dress from two years ago, everyone can tell from the cut or design of the material that something is being taken out of the closet."

Fanelli chose the textiles on display here from the collection of the Museo del Tessuto in Prato, Italy, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service is circulating the show in this country.