Final Touches Being Applied in Countdown to Presidential Inaugural : Four Years Later, Another Boom in New Ball Gowns Made to Travel

Times Staff Writer

It may be the second time around for the West Coast contingent at a Reagan Inaugural, but it won't be the second time for the ball gowns they pack.

Los Angeles designers and stores report that Inaugural ball-gown business is as good as it was four years ago. Maybe even better.

Jack Miles, buyer of fine apparel for 12 western I. Magnin stores, told The Times that there has been a real boom in gala gowns to be worn at the Washington festivities starting tonight.

When told of reports that many East Coast women are wearing old gowns to the balls or declining Inaugural ball invitations altogether in favor of private Inaugural parties, Miles said that tales like that "make my hair stand on end."

"I know for a fact that West Coast women--especially the Reagan 'kitchen cabinet' ladies--are going to the balls and are definitely not wearing the same dresses they wore four years ago. I know them all, and they all have new gowns."

One of the women Miles knows is Virginia (Mrs. Holmes) Tuttle, wife of the longtime Reagan backer and Southern California businessman. She and her husband--along with Lee Annenberg and her husband, Walter, the publishing giant--are tossing the only private party of the weekend for Ronald and Nancy Reagan. It's a Saturday luncheon, and Miles said that he doesn't know what Mrs. Tuttle will wear for that. But for the Inaugural ball, he said, she'll wear a new black velvet Pauline Trigere dress, purchased through his store.

At least 14 other customers of Miles will wear I. Magnin gowns by Los Angeles designer Michael Novarese, made especially for the Inaugural balls.

"We bring our customers right up to the Novarese design room, where he creates the individual dresses and has the fittings," Miles explained. This "protects" the women, he added, so that they know they're not going to see their gowns "on anyone else in Washington."

Novarese said that he believes there's "a touch less spontaneity" this time around because "after all, they've all been there before." But they "all seem very enthusiastic." Most of the custom-made Inaugural ball gowns are black, Novarese reported, although there's one white and one navy.

And not all of the ballgoers are a Nancy-size 6. The designer has made two size 12s and two size 14s, he explained.

Over at the Forgotten Woman in Beverly Hills, dresses are bought right off the rack, and size 14 is considered quite small. The shop caters to larger women, up to size 24, and spokeswoman Eileen Gold said that the Inaugural gown business has been bustling in this category too.

At least four customers this week have bought long black gowns to wear to the festivities, Gold said, at prices ranging from $750 to $1,000.

Who were these women? "I've learned not to ask questions or talk too much," she replied.

Ruth Kane of the Suite 101 shop also wasn't saying who'd bought what for the Washington formals. She did mention that actress Jill St. John "is in a fitting room this moment," purchasing two black gowns for the events. "One's a Bill Blass, the other's a Galanos," Kane reported, "and she doesn't know which she'll wear where."

St. John couldn't have made safer choices. Mrs. Reagan herself will wear Blass and Galanos for the balls.

Lise (Mrs. Mac) Davis, whose husband will sing at one of the galas, is one of "seven or eight women who have bought gowns here for the balls," said Roxanne Smith of Holly's Harp in West Hollywood. Davis' choice was white and beaded.

Pam (Mrs. Chuck) Ashman will wear a strapless black taffeta gown by New York designer Tracy Mills for the Inaugural ball. But Mills said that Ashman is one of very few clients who are actually going to attend.

To prove his point, the designer reeled off a long list of Washington- and New York-based customers who are "avoiding" the balls in favor of small, private, black-tie Inaugural parties timed to coincide with the larger celebratory events.

His customers are part of the social set that criticized the Inaugural balls four years ago. These women complained that they'd paid immense prices for new dresses and found that there wasn't enough space to show them off.

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