In Paris it's the snob shirt for young men at tennis clubs.

In Washington, it's the status shirt for men for all but formal occasions.

It's the alternative to T-shirts for some women, and the summer uniform -- with gym shorts, athletic socks and sneakers -- for kids.

"It" is the alligator shirt. People are snapping it up as though money were tied to its tail.

Known almost as well by its French label, chemise Lacoste (named for 1920s world tennis champion Rene Lacoste who designed it), it is, perhaps, the longest-running status clothing item for men. One Jesuit novice, complying with orders to give up his favorite clothes before entering the novitiate, admits he gave away his old jeans and fitted shirts but kept his six favorite Lacosfe shirts.

Such tales are plentiful among the Lacoste faithful, who are giving the manufacturers a boom year accelerated by an overall, mid-70s fashion trend to classic quality clothing.

John Holmes, president of David Crystal Inc., manufacturers of the American version under a licensing arrangement, will say only that sales this year should be 50 per cent ahead of last. The French company, equally reluctant to discuss exact sales figures, expects to sell more than 6 million shirts this year and says it will have trouble meeting the demand.

Owned by some in a dozen shades, one collector in Paris has built a collection of 35 colors, including five shades of yellow. A Washington attorney recently boasted of his collection of 27, 14 of them shades of light blue.

Few people seem to own one and rarely are they given up. "When they're so worn that they show more skin than fabric, I suppose I'll part with them," said a local fan who still wears the ones he bought 11 years ago.

For some the appeal is strictly status. . . "It's the snob apeal of the alligator, but don't quote me," says a graphics editor who owns eight. For others it is the coolness of the all-cot-ton knit, the sturdiness of the pique textured fabric, (which most people machine wash and dry) the longer tall, the knitted collar, the banded sleeve

And for many, of course, it's simply the fact that the shirts originated abroad.

The alligator symbol came before the shirt. Lacoste had been dubbed Le Crocodile for his style of playing by a sportswriter.

"It was a pretty good nickname because I was considered voracious and thick skinned on the court," Lacoste explains. Now 73, agile and trim, he still plays tennis and recently darted into the Chemise Lacoste offices on the Place Vendome in Paris spiffily dressed in a blazer with crocodile emblem, Lacoste shirt, while slacks and with a tennis racquet tucked under his arm. He is "honorary president" of the business.

It was 1928 when Lacoste had a shirt custom made by a London tailor, the prototype for the popular Lacoste style stoday. While other tennis players were wearing long sleeves, this one had short sleeves and the fabric was a variation on the knit preferred by Indian polo players.

An artist friend, Robert George, designed the crocodile signature.

Encouraged by the compliments on his shirt, Lacoste, who retired from competitive tennis in 1929, established La Societe Chemise Lacoste in 1932. His role was to style items for other firms to manufacture and distribute, which is still the way the company functions.

"For me this company was a Saturday afternoon hobby and a way to invent things," says Lacoste. Lacoste also came up with the then revolutionary steel raquet frame -- Jimmy Connors is among the users -- and a damper device for tennis racquet handles which reduces the vibrations some consider a factor in "tennis elbow." Wilson Sporting Goods manufactures and distributes the Lacoste racquets.

The large American clothing manufacturer David Crystal, now owned by General Mills, acquired the right to import and distribute Chemise Lacoste under their Izod sportswear division in the early 1950s.

"Can you imagine that at the time I considered not bothering with the alligator symbol?" admits Vincent Draddy, who was head of Crystal at the time.

For the American market, the Chemise Lacoste "grew" a longer shirttail in the back. Quickly adopted as a signature for the Americans, it was almost as quickly rejected by the French. "The French preferred an even hemline that looked neat when worn outside the pants," explains Bernard Lacoste, son of Rene Lacoste and now the head of the French company. "Besides, the American man has a longer torso and needs the longer length."

David Crystal started manufacturing a polyester-and-cotton version of the Chemise Lacoste in 1964, while still importing the all-cotton one from France. But in 1974, when the price of cotton, dyes, and labor increased, dramatically, inflated by the declining value of the dollar in France, the imported version was dropped.

"That's when we decided we had to find a way to make an all-cotton Lacoste ourselves," says Holmes. It took longer than expected to turn out a version they considered a worthy counterpart to the French import. And even now some Lacoste afficionados claim it isn't good enough.

"It is a matter of taste," says Holmes. "Some prefer a Medoc chateau wine and other California."

But the "taste" is different enough to some that one recent Paris visitor arrived at the Lacoste department of Galleries Lafayette, a French department store, "deputized" by six office colleagues to purchase 20 French-made Chemises Lacoste.

Bernard Lacoste says the difference is barely discernible. He concedes that "cotton is a natural fiber so it is affected by the climate in which it is grown." But he adds that the two products are so similar he finds it increasingly difficult to tell them apart.

"Some people want the original everything, so of course they want the French Lacoste," he says. "And some like to be different so they want the one not likely available in their own country." Spaniards often seek out the French version and the French often purchase theirs on trips to Spain, Lacoste maintains.

As a footnote, Lacoste notes that different countries have distinctive shirt preferences. Americans like longer tails, bright colors, and despite a burst of sales in all-cotton shirts when the first ones were brought out again last fall, still prefer the cotton and polyester blend. The French stick to basic colors, with variations in basic shades each year. Japanese want only polyester and cotton because they insist on their laundry being very clean and use harsh washing methods to get it that way.

Bargain hunters here and in France have found ways to beat the price tag. At Fashion Flair in Hagerstown, Md., all-cotton Chemise Lacoste "irregulars," some with hardly noticeable imperfections, can be had for $8, $10 below the regular price. (There's a huge jar of alligator appliques under the counter and with some encouragement, a sales person might part with one. In France, "irregulars" sell for about $9.50 for color, less for white but never with the alligator applique.

If some live alligator species have been removed from the endangered list, the Lacoste variety has not. Imitators can count on getting letters from Lacoste's lawyers.

One person to receive a sharp warning was Page Hoeper, creator of the "people" shirt, a T-shirt imprinted with an alligator wearing a shirt with a person as the signature. Like Rene Lacoste, Hoeper had created the shirt for his personal use but at the beseeching of friends, made it available to sell.

So, how to account for the Lacoste mystique?

Woody Allen, in his short story "The Scrolls," tells about a shirt salesman who was "smitten by hard times" and prays for a little help from God. The Lord answers: "Put an alligator over the pocket."

"Pardon me, Lord?"

"Just do what I'm telling you. You won't be sorry."

Adds Holmes, the president of David Crystal: "It worked for me, why shouldn't it work for him?"