As the lights dimmed inside the ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel early yesterday, the models for the Congressional Black Caucus midnight fashion show began their strolls along the runway. Men dressed in mink coats wrapped around bare chests and women in low-cut dresses and bikinis were cheered the way no politician had been during the entire four-day extravaganza.

In fact, more people turned out for the two fashion shows (a second was held at noon yesterday) than any other CBC event, including the workshops, the march along Pennsylvania Avenue protesting the policies of South Africa and the $200-a-plate dinner.

But to say that fashion consciousness replaced political consciousness this weekend would be unfair. Perhaps it would be more accurate, and certainly more diplomatic, to say that the 15th gathering of the CBC was "fashionably conscious of politics," at least until the champagne corks were popped at the midnight show and male models in brief swim wear pranced out.

Some women, particularly young ones, stood and clapped while the older, more mature set, kept their seats and howled like wolves. When the women came out in their swimsuits -- most of them more than half-naked, indeed -- many of the men remained silent, perhaps because their heads had snapped back so hard their vocal chords were sprained.

Frankly, I prefer the dance line on the "Soul Train" television show, and ended up making formal inquiries as to how a fashion show had risen to such an exalted status at what was supposed to be a "legislative weekend."

Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), immaculately tailored in a cream-colored suit and wearing a manicured mustache and Afro hairdo, said it was "no big deal, just something the congressmen's wives had decided to do to be a part of the caucus activities."

At $40 a ticket and featuring nearly 50 of the nation's top models, music and light shows, champagne, raffles and gifts and an audience filled with folk whose own wardrobes hinted of a designer's touch, the wives had done quite well.

Their efforts have generated thousands of dollars for the caucus' Congressional Fellows Program, which has dramatically increased the number of black interns working for members of Congress on Capitol Hill.

It was as if the wives understood what their husbands did not: that clothes make better statements than politicians make speeches. And against a backdrop of nagging internal difficulties within the black community, they had offered what everyone seems to have wanted -- an escape.

Under the direction of the late Dwight Byrd, its pioneer, the CBC fashion show has become as much a theatrical production as a fashion show, complete with flying doves and wafting smoke.

"Its an opportunity for men and women alike to get involved in a fantasy," said Roscoe Dellums, wife of the California congressman.

Why more people attend fashion shows than workshops is a source of concern for organizers of the legislative weekend, who privately think that some blacks may have their priorities screwed up.

Yet, it is clear that the people at the fashion shows see no connection between their problems and the scope of solutions offered by the black caucus. The clerks and secretaries who get dressed up for a night on the town don't necessarily want to be reminded of racism or limited opportunities.

Instead, they seem content to just hobnob and rub elbows. In their hearts, they may be pained, but in the fantastic recesses of their minds, they are a part of the glitter and glamour that is the black elite.

As Billy Crystal, comic extraordinaire of "Saturday Night Live," notes, it's not how you feel, it's how you look. And yesterday, they all looked marvelous.