At White Flint mall, home of exotica from the $400 ceramic neck rest to the cheesecake jelly bean, even the mannequins are a breed apart. Compare them with the dressing dummies at Wheaton Plaza that have kewpie-doll eyes, painted-on hair and price tags prominently pinned to their attire. The mannequins at White Flint know better than to leave the price tags on their clothes. They have manor-born cheekbones. Somebody does their nails. That look of confident disdain is second nature to them.

Publicists predictably wax rhapsodic about White Flint, claiming it is "the most unique mall ever built." But, like its mannequins, White Flint is in fact a breed apart. When the $50 million complex, spread across an old golf course off Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, opened nearly five years ago it was something of a cultural event in the Washington area. Under one roof the developers of White Flint brought two of New York City's most sophisticated department stores, Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor. White Flint was a "fashion mall" endowed with elegant boutiques, fountains and half a dozen stores with French names and that certain je ne sais quoi.

Pretentious like no other mall ever built in Washington, White Flint was advertised as a place to "name-drop." The developers who brewed the crucial "tenant mix" took a trip to New York for a sales luncheon at The 21 Club with 40 of the city's biggest retail names. Though the mall is actually in Kensington, its pioneering tenants liked the ring of North Bethesda, and so that's where they say the mall is -- deep in North Bethesda.

Nearly five years after its black-tie-and-pate debut, White Flint is still celebrated as something more than just another mall. For many Washingtonians who reside in a city completing a metamorphosis from a drowsy southern town to a cosmopolitan capital eager for style, White Flint offers the same glamorous showcase for big-league shopping that the Kennedy Center provides for performing arts. Perhaps only in an area changing as fast as Washington could a suburban shopping mall figure so prominently in the cultural life of a major city. But there it is, a Montgomery County landmark looming along one of the least attractive commercial strips in Maryland.

House Speaker Tip O'Neill recently tripped out to White Flint for the opening of Bloomingdale's Irish exhibit. Fashions that Oscar de la Renta unveiled at the Dominican Republic Embassy went on display a day later at the store. White Flint is where the wives of the International Monetary Fund bankers repaired recently while their husbands discussed interest rates.

When I. Magnin, the West Coast department store, moved into White Flint, the announcement was made in a Senate office building with a clutch of congressmen in attendance. The security guards at White Flint are familiar with the Secret Service, foreign ambassadors and Queen Sirikit of Thailand. (They have also made the acquaintance of the "Queen of England," a local character who shows up periodically in a brown wig.)

"It's a stop on the circuit if you want to see Washington," says Joel Rosenberg, whose store, Cedar Post, at White Flint is done in a turn-of-the-century warehouse decor featuring belt-driven ceiling fans. "You go to the White House, the Washington Monument, and then White Flint."

Montgomery County's financial prospectus boasts that White Flint's first-year sales revenues may have marked a national record for new malls. The mall owners expect White Flint to generate in excess of $150 million this year. According to demographic studies, three out of four people who shop White Flint at least once a month have incomes of $25,000 or more, the highest percentage for all of Washington's 34 major retail centers. White Flint attracted 1.2 million people last year, and was among the malls that drew on the broadest geographic area.

Having departed from the typical mall, White Flint owes much of its success to the aura that comes from being different. White Flint includes no drugstore, no supermarket, no arcade of electronic games. Nor do teen-agers infest White Flint in the same epidemic proportions they do other malls, although they once dropped a table three stories out of a restaurant. Instead of Big Macs, White Flint offers the international cuisine of 12 food boutiques where shoppers may fortify themselves on everything from souvlaki to the kosher foot-long hotdogs that Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin was once spotted chewing on at White Flint.

Like a self-contained city, White Flint has its own traffic light, patrol car and 15-member round-the-clock security force. I. Magnin ads in The New Yorker refer to White Flint as a location like Portland or Chicago. The air smells like money. The weather is Southern California. To wander the marble-chip walkways is to drift in a flow of stylish humanity.

For all its diversity of merchandise, the mall does not pretend to encompass a broad spectrum of the community. Thinking they'd found something more hospitable than a park bench, two homeless men once tried a night in a White Flint fire exit. But security guards were alerted by one of the 50 electronic sensors that detect after-hours motion in the mall, and the vagabonds got the bum's rush.

White Flint, by and large, is the province of women: women who want to "impulse shop," women who want to dawdle amid opulence, women who want to minister to vanities or simply abandon themselves in a giant pipe dream. "We're like psychiatrists for some of the women who come in here," says Cathy Corby, a 31-year-old master of mascara who works at a mall shop called Over the Rainbow, applying and selling makeup.

Over the Rainbow is located near the heart of White Flint where the mall's broad concourses converge at a place called Center Court. Stuart Pohost, a 31-year-old photographer from Silver Spring, saw Center Court for the first time last Christmas, accompanied by his therapist and a camera crew from the ABC television show "That's Incredible." Pohost, who suffers from agoraphobia -- or fear of the marketplace -- had never set foot in a mall before, much less White Flint. To him White Flint was "phobia heaven," dreaded for the very things that make it so attractive to most other people -- the crowds, the glitter, the sense of being enclosed in fantasy.

Pohost's holiday mission was to confront his fear by proceeding into the mall as far as he dared and buying something. For a future audience watching "That's Incredible," he agreed to rank his anxiety, zero for none, 10 for red-line panic. A few days after Christmas Pohost entered White Flint on the upper Yellow Level. He passed the movie theaters and the restaurants, registering threes and fours. Venturing deeper into the mall, he came to the spot that had once been the seventh fairway of an old golf course.

Light poured through a skylight roof into a vaulting atrium, kaleidoscopically paneled with mirrors, chrome and copper. Escalators carried throngs of people from floor to floor. Long banners depended from above. Fountains danced at the base of a light-trimmed pedestal that was ringed by balconies and ramps. Glass elevators cleared an understory of plants and umbrella trees, ascending the concrete column to the topside deck where "50 Ways to Leave Your Liver" sandwiches were being served in a rattan-decorated restaurant called The Loft.

Pohost's face was ashen. "Ten!" he cried. "Ten! Ten!"

After 40 minutes in the mall Pohost couldn't take anymore. He was desperate to get out, but he hadn't bought anything. Trailed by his entourage, he dashed into a sundries shop on a stage-set replica of M Street, grabbed a $2 gum-holder off the counter, and said, "I'll take this, what is it?"

"White Flint was something Stuart said he absolutely could not do," said his therapist, Dr. Jerilyn Ross, director of the Washington Phobia Clinic where more than 400 people have been treated for the anxiety, fear of being trapped, sweaty palms, tunnel vision and racing pulse that afflict them entering shopping malls. "White Flint is the worst. Stuart kept calling out tens, thinking he was panicking."

"After it was over, I was exhausted and on top of the world at the same time," Pohost recalled.

He's also since decided that the gum-holder was overpriced.

Trauma at Center Court is the exception. For the last two decades social critics have observed that regional shopping malls -- descendants of the dazzling Parisian arcades of the mid 19th century -- serve as the village commons for sprawling suburban communities. That is what Ruth and Fred Ahlgrims, a pair of 78-year-olds who always stop at White Flint on their annual trip from Florida to Maine, make of Center Court. It tickles them just to sit and watch the spectacle of mall life. "This is a wonderful place to come to when you have nothing to do," said Ruth. "Time just goes by and the first thing you know you've been sitting here a long time."

White Flint developer Theodore N. Lerner, an autocratic mall mogul who has built four major shopping centers in the Washington area, including Tysons Corner, preferred to call White Flint a "shopping environment" because the kind osmack into Montgomery's daunting brand of civic activist, and had to scrap plans for a store on Jones Bridge Road. A few miles up Rockville Pike lay a 45-acre site that until the early 1960s had been the rolling nine-hole White Flint golf course. For the better part of a decade dirt bikers and beer drinkers had haunted its locust woods. When Bloomingdale's agreed to locate there, White Flint was in business.

"Mr. Lerner wanted White Flint to be the fashion showplace of Washington," remembers Joe Scalabrin of RTKL Associates, the Baltimore architectural firm Lerner retained. A year before the mall opened the developers launched a barrage of ads that were aimed at prospective retailers but did not include a phone number and made no mention that the mall was looking for tenants. Lerner hated the idea of soliciting. "The impression he wanted to create was that this was the most exotic mall ever built," recalled Diane Dym, who worked on the campaign that won best retail campaign in Washington in 1976 and several other national awards the year later. Though rents ranged as high as $50 a square foot, White Flint drew more than 500 inquiries for 100 spaces.

From the outside the building that emerged was an L-shaped structure with glass-covered bridges leading from the indoor parking garage to the mall like draw bridges across a castle moat. Inside, remembers architect Tom Witt, "the mall was dressed up like a woman for an evening at the Kennedy Center," with brass, chrome, rosewood railings, glittering metals and marble floors. Lerner had furniture he had seen at airports customized for luxury, and personally worried over the design of the parking lots. Store windows in the mall are mostly free of mullions because he felt vertical glass support strips make shop fronts look like variety stores circa 1930. To get into White Flint the Pants Corral had to tone down its gaudy lighted store sign.

The concern with image at White Flint has extended from the architecture and marketing to the way the mall is run. The management is so meticulous about the appearance of the mall that Edith Schubert once got a letter from Lerner complaining about a fingerprint on the column in her store, The China Closet.

Once a month Lerner inspects White Flint unannounced, tape recorder in hand. Graffiti gets scrubbed off furniture by more than 25 maintenance workers, although enough of a number is still legible on one chair to "call Judy for a good time." Beethoven, Handel and Tchaikovsky, not Mantovani, play all day on taped programs chosen by radio station WGMS. So that nothing disturbs a shopper's reverie, or the mall sound like an airport, paging is forbidden except in cases of medical emergency or a lost child under 12.

Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's threw galas to celebrate the opening of White Flint in March 1977. More than 3,000 people turned out for Bloomingdale's Kennedy Center benefit, which came complete with Elizabeth Taylor and a search light. Lerner sent geraniums and champagne to some new tenants. Business that first year was so good Marvin Weiss of the Craft Gallery remembers "some people thought they'd died and gone to heaven."

But the merchants at White Flint have had to endure the same interest rates and rising costs as other retailers. Lerner allows that he could not have built White Flint today. Business is lagging badly on M Street, ironically advertised as Georgetown "without the traffic." Half the shop windows are covered with green plastic and one store has had a sale on for two years. The saleswomen at Paraphernalia, a boutique that features the spit-in-your-eye outfits of Norma Kamali, no longer risk alienating customers as in the old days when a saleswoman would ignore everyone but her customer. Some merchants like Tom Yorukoff, manager at the men's store Chaps & Co. see a dramatic change in the type of customer the mall attracts now.

"The people have changed and the market is not as strong," Yorukoff says. "Just in the last two years I've noticed a change from a more fashion-aware customer to a more normal run-of-the-mill customer. We've changed our style, gone a little more to the mass-merchandise stuff. In 1979, it was almost as if people got dressed up to come to White Flint. Now you see people in running shorts."

Still White Flint does not lack for vignettes of affluence. Teen-agers stub cigarette butts in the dark sand ashtrays and blue-shirted Korean cleaners glide up like attentive servants and pluck them out. Anne Janey, a resident of nearby Garrett Park who now works at the mall remembers the morning a Saudi Arabian father strolled into I. Magnin with his two children and bought everything they touched. White Flint was the first mall in the country to issue its own charge card.

Even a boutique called Necessities, which purports to specialize in the basics, offers such impossible-to-live-without items as designer toothbrushes from France, a mirror that says "Baby you're dynamite!" and electric tweezers.

Come day's end at 10:30 with the closing of the Orange and Blue levels, the escalators grind to a halt, timers shut down the fountains and the cash registers of White Flint lapse into torpid silence like reptiles that have eaten a big meal. Center Court and the esplanades are no longer what they seemed when they bustled with people. With each door barred, life ebbs out of the mall and the illusion vanishes that this might be a place to live. The heart the mall proves to have is a mannequin's heart. Two of the trees in The Loft have sprouted plastic leaves from real wood limbs, and a memo planning for the Christmas season advises, in the mall's essential spirit, that "Santa Claus will begin operations next month."

Perhaps a shopping mall can arouse a true sense of belonging among its inhabitants, or elicit feelings of nostalgia, but it is still an artificial world derived from something else, something that seems more elusive the longer one remains in the mall. Nothing in White Flint is quite as strange as the sight of the mailman on his morning rounds, an incongrous figure bringing news from a faraway land.

One late September afternoon there was a emphatic rainstorm over "North Bethesda." The rain fell in sheets. Wind flung it sideways under the covered White Flint walk where Evelyn Phillips was waiting for her mother to pick her up. She was 18, and worked as a waitress at The Loft. She held an awed hand out to feel the rain. Inside the mall the rain had made only the faintest patter on the skylight. Outside it was ripping through the gutters and turning the pines across the way a darker green. "God," she said. "This is unreal."