Every so often, in a wistful attempt to inject some glamour back into women's lives, designers go off on a postwar tangent. With visions of Balenciaga dancing in their heads, they display a sudden affection for veiled hats and decollete jackets, worn -- naturally -- by teenage models striking the swan-neck poses of '50s mannequins. But nothing ever comes of these little dramas, no great look is relaunched, and the audience, squashed inelegantly together and perspiring, appears only too happy to have escaped in one piece.

Clearly, the effort to sustain elegance isn't what it used to be. Even those who care about clothes do not necessarily care about keeping up with fashion, much less an elegant appearance. Yet 50 years ago, in the midst of war and deprivation, restricted by shortages of every kind, Parisian women kept up their beauty regimen by sitting under hair dryers powered, for lack of electricity, by two men on a bicycle. That they still cared about how they looked -- enough to wear hats fashioned from newspapers and wood-shavings -- is all the more remarkable when you consider that such preoccupations now seem, to many women, so frivolous.

This impulse to be fashionable, even in wartime, is revived in the current costume exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a display of some 150 elegantly dressed "dolls" from the last year of World War II, when haute couture was reawakening. Conceived as a war-relief effort, and as a way of showing the world that French fashion had not died, "Le Theatre de la Mode" also marked one of those rare occasions when designers worked toward a common cause.

More than 50 couture houses, most no longer in existence, made outfits for the dolls -- minutely executed day and evening ensembles with tiny belts, floral embroideries and zippers that opened and closed. Though fabric shortages prevented them from dressing lifesize mannequins, this was not an obstacle -- designers had been making matched wardrobes for clients and their dolls for years.

Evidently, nothing was beyond their imagination, or the skill of their workrooms. At Carven, the stripes in one dress were considered too imposing for the dolls, so the fabric was cut and re-sewn to scale. Patou ordered tinier fabric weaves, while shoemakers labored over ankle straps no wider than a millimeter. In the beginning, the dolls were only to be dressed, hatted and coifed, but there was such a rivalry among the couturiers that gloves, ruffled parasols and jewelry were soon added. A few workrooms even made underwear.

The dolls, which are actually 27-inch wire mannequins with plaster heads and real or fiber hair, were first displayed in the spring of 1945 in the Louvre's Pavillon Marsan. Nearly 100,000 people came to see them, arranged in miniature theatrical sets created by such artists as Jean Cocteau and Andre Beaurepaire. The illusion of movement was such that in Christian Berard's opera-house decor the dolls appeared to be floating across the stage in their white gowns, while an audience of women in plumed hats and furs watched intently from the boxes.

After their Paris debut, the dolls traveled to London, where they attracted another 120,000 visitors, and later to Leeds, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Vienna. The following spring, with updated outfits, they went to New York and San Francisco. But by then they had already served their purpose. The French fashion industry was up and running again, and the dolls, once they had completed their final tour, were put into storage in a California department store and presumably forgotten.

In retrospect, it was a stroke of luck that the dolls were abandoned in America. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Susan Train, the Paris bureau chief for Conde Nast and one of those responsible for resurrecting the dolls, speculated that even if somebody had wanted to pay for their passage home, the dolls probably would have been dispersed or sold off. As it was, the original sets were lost and, quite possibly, destroyed. But it is also somewhat mysterious that, for more than 30 years, in spite of documentation and much interest among fashion people, nobody seemed to know what had become of these little ambassadors.

Nobody, that is, except visitors to the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Wash., where the dolls have been living -- some on display, others in boxes -- since 1952. The decision to give the collection to Maryhill, an imposing concrete mansion built in 1914 on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River, had been made by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the trade association of the French fashion industry, at the suggestion of a Maryhill benefactor. As the museum's current director, Linda Brady Mountain, notes in the foreword to the "Theatre de la Mode" catalogue, the dolls "have been the most appealing exhibit of the French decorative arts collection."

That the dolls were living in virtual oblivion so far from their birthplace seems sad. But then, who would have thought, in 1952, that they were worth something? Yet even now, recoifed and in demand, the dolls touch a sentimental nerve. In the same way that designers try to recapture the past with veiled flourishes of Balenciaga, we look at these tiny silhouettes and wonder what it would be like to be so exquisitely turned out, to care that much about how we looked to others. It's this public aspect of dressing -- the power to reinvent oneself -- that no longer fits into our dreams, and we're not sure why.

For years, as an American fashion editor in Paris, Susan Train had heard about the dolls, but it wasn't until 1985, when visited by Stanley Garfinkel, a professor of history at Kent State, that she finally learned of their existence. Garfinkel had seen the dolls the previous winter in Goldendale; they were even more extraordinary than he had imagined. "I found them so utterly beautiful that I just had to do something about them," he says. But after exhausting his contacts in Paris, and finding little support for a revival, he was about to return to the States when he decided to drop by Train's office. "I just went in to say goodbye," he recalls. "I thought, well, Susan is a dynamic person and she's helped me in the past, so who knows? I just let it drop about the dolls." In Train, he had found the perfect accomplice.

She quickly got things rolling by contacting Pierre Berge, the president of Yves Saint-Laurent and a power in his own right. The plan was formidable: to reconstruct the "Theatre de la Mode" in the costume wing at the Louvre. Once again, it would be a collective effort -- the Chambre Syndicale would fund the restoration, and both the Metropolitan Museum and the Musee des Arts de la Mode would re-create nine of the original 15 sets. In all, the project would take nearly five years to complete.

Fortunately, a few of the people who worked on the first exhibit were still alive, among them Eliane Bonabel, who had devised the dolls' surrealistic figures, and Beaurepaire, who was 20 years old when he designed "The Enchanted Grotto" setting. Alexandre de Paris, who normally coifs the heads of society women and runway models, was brought in to reset the tiny curls -- an impressive undertaking considering the dolls had not been to a hairdresser in 44 years. A number of fashion houses also offered their services: Saint-Laurent recreated two missing Cartier breastplates; the custom shoemaker Massaro remade shoes; and Francois Lesage created embroidered versions of the Van Cleef & Arpels jeweled epaulets on a Schiaparelli gown. Eric Mortensen, until recently at Pierre Balmain, completely remade a black velvet evening sweater and bias-draped black skirt from Balmain's 1946 spring collection. The doll, her gloved hands poised for dramatic effect, wears a black straw platter hat, its crown sprayed with glossy egret feathers.

For many people, the postwar years represent the height of glamour, when French fashion, restrained by years of rationing and hardship, exploded in 1947 with Dior's New Look. But if the dolls are evidence that haute couture did survive the war and move on, they also provide a means of looking at the ingenious ways ordinary Parisiennes outfitted themselves during the war, when there was virtually nothing new to wear.

It seems that for nearly every rationed article there was a corresponding innovation. In place of leather handbags, for instance, dressmakers added large pockets to suit jackets, a utilitarian gesture that, along with shorter hemlines dictated by fabric rations, made riding a bicycle somewhat easier. In the absence of silk or nylon, leg makeup, or "bottled stockings," emerged. One resourceful hairdresser got around fuel restrictions -- and became immensely popular -- by rigging his salon's dryers to a basement furnace powered by pairs of young men on a bicycle, pedaling the equivalent of 320 kilometers a day to dry about half as many heads.

But perhaps the most ingenious creations were the hats women made from odd bits of their daily lives -- newspapers, wood shavings, scraps of fur, even dog leashes and domino tiles. Cocteau wrote that these marvels resembled puff pastries or twisted candies. In her essay in the "Theatre de la Mode" catalogue, the French curator Nadine Gasc quotes Colette: "Is it out of gratitude for the savarin we used to know that women now put babas on their heads?" More than mere confections, however, the hats, when executed in a woman's favorite newspaper, were a means of flaunting her political dissent in the face of German soldiers.

In a sense, the dolls were an attempt to get on with life as women knew it. Viewed in the darkened rooms of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan, where the refurbished dolls were sent after their Paris opening last summer and will remain until April 14 before going to Tokyo and eventually back to Maryhill, the "Theatre de la Mode" serves as a reminder of a more valiant time, one in which fashion played a vital role.

But what still seems hard to fathom, in an era of convenience and one-size-fits-all fashion, is this unconditional love for beautiful clothes. The smartness of Patou's "Provocante" ensemble, with its three-quarter raspberry wool jacket over a fitted black jersey dress pinched with a pink dotted sash, isn't in the design so much as the impression it leaves. In Molyneux's beige wool redingote trimmed with passementerie cording and worn with sling-back platform shoes, one hears the reassuring but distant click of self-confidence. And looking at Balenciaga's black wool suit, with its full skirt sashed around the hips in fringed black faille, one senses a glamour so remote as to be unrecognizable.

In any case, it is not the same glamour we see on runways today. And maybe that's just as well. Fashion is always at the point of being outmoded, and what we want today will hopefully not be the same thing we wanted yesterday. That's why, in the end, the dolls found refuge at Maryhill. It wasn't that the French didn't appreciate their future value, it was because their clothes were demode.

From far left, a coat and dress by Martial & Armand; and-in a half-size picture-a fitted jacket and cuffed trousers by Freddy Sport.