The Desert Set

As fashion statements go, the desert BDU isn't likely to displace Saint Laurent on the International Best Dressed List. But ever since Barbara Bush wore earrings and a camouflage jacket in Saudi Arabia, surplus sales of battle dress uniforms have been brisk in Washington. "You bet," says Ben Ortega of Sunny's Surplus in Georgetown. "We've had all kinds of ladies in here since last week asking for desert camouflage."

According to her press office, it was the First Lady's idea to wear the jacket on Thanksgiving Day with the troops, a gesture that, if nothing else, drew attention to the pebbly brown pattern -- a k a "chocolate chips" -- that now appears on 303 million desert BDUs.

The cookie motif, conceived in the late '70s in the camouflage lab at Fort Belvoir, is essentially a six-color reprint of the desert. "Contrary to what most people think, the desert isn't all sand," says Rosemary Lomba, a clothing designer at the U.S. Army's Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass. So pebbles, rocks and the shadows cast by sand dunes are also worked into the pattern, in infrared dyes that make troop detection through night-vision devices just as difficult.

Camouflage is a little like makeup: It breaks up solid shapes (like eyeliner); deflects shine (like powder to the nose) and is psychologically imposing (like too much paint). Actually, there's a long history of sartorial concealment for warfare. Doughboys in World War I covered their helmets with burlap sacking. In World War II, soldiers were uniformly wearing olive drab -- except for their underwear. This risky exposure -- on laundry lines, for example -- turned out to be the mother of invention: Soldiers dyed their undies in coffee. "The WACs were actually the first to wear olive drab underwear, in 1943," says Walter Bradford, a curator at the Army's Center of Military History in Washington.

For fashion types, desert camouflage -- which is currently being reissued in a lighter, three-dye pattern -- looks appealingly psychedelic with rough-and-ready overtones. "Camouflage sort of says you're macho," surmises Bradford. If not macho, the First Lady's BDU was certainly a morale booster, which, after all, was the point. Incidentally, she kept it.

Those Famous Faces, Making the Show in the Front Row

Yes, yes, yes. The clothes. That's what they all say: It's the clothes, not the celebs, that make a fashion show. But it doesn't hurt to spring-load your front row with Famous People who happen to be your best friends and who also happen to wear your clothes.

The pecking order along the fashion front gives preference to movie stars and royals, who almost always arrive late so everyone else will stand up and stare at them, causing the show to run another 20 minutes late. "If a movie star is attending the show for the first time, this usually means that someone who might normally sit in the front row will be seated in the second row," says Paul Wilmot, director of public relations for Calvin Klein. A slight shift such as this might be perceived as a demotion -- a public loss of favor -- but really the view from the second row is just as good. Really.

Of course, non-stellar treatment may be a case of mistaken identity. Several years ago, Lee Radziwill was directed to a second-row perch at Giorgio Armani's show in Milan. "You expected me to sit there!" she snapped to the usher, who apparently didn't recognize the designer's director of special events. She might just as well have shouted, "Off with your head!" Instead, the front ranks parted and she squeezed into place.

Regular patrons such as Pat Buckley, Ivana Trump, Anne Bass and Nan Kempner can be counted on to fill out the remaining seats in the social section. Most designers separate "guests" from reporters and retailers, perhaps in the belief that work and play don't mix. Calvin Klein groups friends together -- such as Bianca Jagger and Ian Schrager -- so they'll have something in common besides his clothes. "It's nice to be sitting next to people you can talk to," suggests Wilmot.

Editors are more likely to be temperamental than socialites. "The social ladies are much nicer," says photographer Roxanne Lowit, whose celebrity shots appear in Vogue as well as in her new book "Moments" (Editions Assouline, $50). "Nan Kempner is particularly nice. If she's standing next to Bill Blass and you missed the shot, she'll do it again for you."

Post ScriptsThis must be New York designer week in Washington. Carolyne Roehm will be in town Tuesday night for a black-tie dinner and fashion show by Saks Fifth Avenue in conjunction with the National Museum of Women in the Arts. On Friday, Arnold Scaasi will be promoting his new fragrance at Bloomingdale's White Flint store from 11 a.m. to noon and at the Tysons Corner store from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

The Washington Post and the Fashion Group International of Greater Washington are sponsoring a Designer Mart on Thursday to benefit the Nina Hyde Scholarship Fund. The public sale at the Post will feature clothes and accessories by local designers. It's open from noon to 2 p.m. and from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Admission is $5. For more information, call 202-334-7973.