Since the Smithsonian's collection of first ladies' gowns may be sent out on the road to Dallas to earn their dry-cleaning and mending money, it's a good time to look at how the dresses came to the Smithsonian -- and why the Texas folk have such a craving to see them.

Lady Bird Johnson may be the innocent catalyst of the Texas interest. "When she was a congressional wife, she took every Texan who came to town over to see the collection," said Martha Klapthor, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. "She said that she'd never expected to have her dress there, but now she brings her grandchildren to see it."

Klapthor says not all the other first ladies were enthusiastic. "Edith Kermit Carow {Mrs. Theodore} Roosevelt and Lucretia Rudolph {Mrs. James} Garfield weren't sure they wanted to have their clothes shown in public places." In those days, she said, "proper ladies' " names appeared in the newspaper only at birth, marriage and death.

"In line with her populist principles, Rosalynn Carter asked that her presentation be made out in the plaza in front of the museum, so that anyone who wanted to could watch," Klapthor said.

Mamie Eisenhower was the first to present hers in person. Until then, only past first ladies' gowns were exhibited.

Klapthor came to the Smithsonian in 1943 -- "they thought they needed a woman to take care of the first ladies." She headed the cultural history division until her retirement in 1983. She wrote the book "The First Ladies" for the White House Historical Association, a first ladies' cookbook and collaborated on books about White House china, among other publications.

The gown collection began, Klapthor said, in a Washington attic. "Rose Gouverneur Hoes was a descendant of James and Elizabeth Monroe. She had wonderful things in her attic, but she was genteel poor. Cissy {Mrs. Julian} James was well-to-do, and had a magnificent house on 16th Street."

The two, Klapthor said, talked Helen Herron Taft, the reigning first lady, into giving the Smithsonian her 1909 inaugural ball gown, an Empire creation with a train. At a Democratic Party breakfast in 1912, they talked other presidential connections into looking through their attics.

"Mrs. Hoes went hog wild and with Mrs. James providing the money, by 1920 they collected 29 costumes. We've added 14."

Since then, after the election, every first lady receives a letter from the Smithsonian secretary, asking for her dress. "They've all been forthcoming," said Klapthor.

The first exhibits of the dresses were in individual cases in the Smithsonian's second oldest building, Arts and Industries. Klapthor planned the current exhibit, first installed in the Arts and Industries building in 1955, moving it over to the Museum of American History (then History and Technology) in 1964.

The mannequins have identical heads, after a bust representing Cordelia, daughter of King Lear, sculpted by Pierce F. Connelly of Louisiana. The eyes, hair, coloring and figure size make a stab at representing the real ladies.

Not all items in the first ladies' gown collection belonged to first ladies. Daughters, sisters and other relatives and friends are included in the 44 to fill gaps in the collection. Nor are all the garments gowns. Martha Jefferson Randolph, daughter of and White House hostess for widower Thomas Jefferson, is represented by her 68-inches-by-4-foot Paisley shawl.

No exact copies of any of the items exist, though some study patterns have been made. Klapthor has collected 20 "second-best" first lady costumes, just in case people look holes through these.

"But the public wants to see the familiar ones. So many dolls have been dressed to be like them, and the costumes have been photographed so many times," she said.

The settings use actual furnishings from the White House. Among them are 750 objects, including two pianos, one a gold Steinway (the 100,000th made) used during the terms from Theodore Roosevelt through Franklin Roosevelt; gold furniture James Buchanan used in the Blue Room; objects used by George Washington in Philadelphia and at Mount Vernon; and the original curtains, rugs, and Empire furniture used in Jackie Kennedy's Red Room in the White House.

The gown of teetotaling Lucy Webb Hayes, called "Lemonade Lucy," stands by her portrait showing a water fountain in the background. The portrait was given by the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

All the ensembles are scheduled to undergo conservation while the Smithsonian plans a presidential hall for their new home. Provided, of course, the museum can turn up half million dollars for conservation and something over a million to build the hall