THE "MINI" FIRST WOWED WASHING- ton in late 1803 at the ball Navy Secretary Robert Smith gave to honor his niece, the former Elizabeth Patterson, 18. Six weeks earlier, Patterson had married Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome. The dress the bride chose for the ball caused a riot.

". . . Mobs of boys have crowded round her splendid equipage to see what I hope will not often be seen in this country, an almost naked woman," reported Margaret Bayard Smith, the unofficial chronicler of Washington society of the time, in a letter to her sister. ". . . Her dress was the thinnest sarcenet and white crape without the least stiffening in it . . . there was scarcely any waist to it and no sleeves; her back, her bosom, part of her waist and her arms were uncover'd and the rest of her form visible."

Technically, it was not a mini, since the diaphanous silk went below Mme. Bonaparte's knees. But gentlemen of the day did not quibble. One described her outfit as a dress that could fit into a snuffbox.

As it turned out, Mme. Bonaparte started a fashion war in Washington. A new British ambassador, Anthony Merry, had come to town, and his wife, although not prudish, tried to set a more dignified tone at the ball. Her dress, while low-cut, wouldn't fit into a snuffbox.

". . . Her dress attracted great attention," continued Smith, in her letter. "It was brilliant and fantastic, white satin with a long train, dark blue crape of the same length over it and white crape drapery down to her knees and open at one side, so thickly cover'd with silver spangles that it appear'd to be a brilliant silver tissue; a breadth of blue crape, about four yards long . . . out over her head, instead of over her shoulders and hung down to the floor."

Local ladies preferred Mrs. Merry's attire, and a delegation of them told Mme. Bonaparte to wear, well, more if she wanted to be invited to their houses. Local gentlemen, however, as if they hadn't seen enough of Mme. Bonaparte already, eagerly aped the French fashion of making calls before madame got out of bed. "Her charms, I am told," wrote one Washington correspondent, "appear in this situation to particular advantage." (By the bye, Napoleon eventually had her marriage to his brother annulled.)

Local belles fired their own salvo in the fashion war. Taking a cue from the real war then raging between France and England, they began wearing military-style dress that they called "regimentals," topped with, as Sen. John Breckinridge explained to his wife back in Kentucky, "a hat with a plume in it about a yard and a half long." Oscar de la Renta would have been impressed.