Stanley Marcus, board chairman of Neiman-Marcus, was saying "that nothing is as good as it used to be" (excluding, he said, items such as cameras, cars and computers) but pronounced that, "Anything done by hand is poorer than it used to be." He was speaking to potential future retailers and other business students at Georgetown University School of Business recently. The enemies of quality, said the man whose store was built on the development of customers satisfied with quality merchandise, are public ownership and bigness. Big business only considers the balance sheet, he said. "The price of perfection has gotten lost."

Marcus, who believes we won't ever recover quality in the sense of the 18th century, challenged Georgetown students to tackle the problems of bigness by finding better ways to distribute products in large quantities "and still recover the lost grounds of quality." He also called doing business ethically the new business challenge. Using as an example the buying of officials abroad, Marcus says, "It will never be prevented by law unless the citizenship demands integrity abroad as at home." Marcus' new book "Quest for the Best" (Viking Penguin, New York) will be out next August.

Calvin Klein doesn't claim to be able to tell a Jesuit priest from a Franciscan monk, but he's dubbed the black linen suit with the collar that folds over and buttons (as does the shirt) his "Jesuit suit." Says Rev. Timothy Healy, S.J., president of Georgetown University, "If all Jesuit suits were filled that way it would rejoice the hearts of nine choirs of angels." According to Father Healy, Jesuits were never instructed about dress by founder Saint Ignatius Loyola, except to adapt the dress of the clergy of the country in which they lived.

You may not see the bag you use to lug home your sale items or Christmas gifts as portable graphic art, but the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian's national museum of design thinks so. About some, at least, Enough to make up an exhibit in The Contemporary Design Gallery on the ground floor of the New York museum. The exhibit touches the first plain brown bags with handles from the 1940s to the current collectables, designed by graphic artists. It includes as well some predecessors of shopping bags including 19th-century band boxes, used for travel.The exhibit opens Dec. 9 and continues on display through Jan 27.

The thousand and one things that have inspired designer Adele Simpson over the years are currently on display at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Called "1001 Treasures of Design," the exhibit includes things that Simpson and her late husband picked up in markets, mills, museums and homes in the 40 years they travelled together. "We collected so much we were like the brothers Collier," says the designer.

The collection ranges from the opulent to the obvious and cheap such as a plastic shopping bag from Expo 67 in Montreal. The pattern on the bag later was translated into the pattern for a silk and wool dress; both the inspiration and the final design are on display. Rarities such as a 19th-century Taoist priest robe from China, a picture painted by a New York City public school student (also an inspiration for a dress fabric), ceremonial and military hats, dolls and native costumes are among the special pieces and many are shown with the items they inspired. (The show continues through Jan. 6 at FIT, West 27th St., New York City and is free to the public.)

All-cotton shirts that are machine washable (and dryable) and need no ironing... they've got to be kidding? Not so, says The Van Heusen Company, who will be the first on the counter in mid-December at Woodward/Lothrop and Hecht's with shirts called Cotton 100.

Surely there's a need. Witness the growth of the permanent press shirt in spite of the wrinkle, that the fastidious insist still needs to be touched up with an iron. And many complain permanent press shirts are too hot or cold at the wrong time. Bette Stolarun, men's fashion merchandising coordinator for Woodies, says there's an added bonus for the increasing number of men who have been paying increasing prices for an all-cotton shirt. "The man who wears cotton shirts owns more than one because of the care factor. Now, you won't have to own so many of this new type of shirt," she says. The Van Heusen shirt will cost $17 to $20, Arrow will follow shortly with versions in long and short sleeves, plain and fancy from $15 to $19.

Unlikely places to find Christmas fashion gifts: New York's Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center has a Met by Mail catalogue that includes a silk crepe de chine reproduction of the Carmen shawl worn by Geraldine Farrar ( $28) and a scarf by George Stavropoulos, inspired by the Masked Ball ( $32) plus collage vests and evening bags shapped from costume swatches from several Met productions and designed by the Met's costume designer Charles Caine. The vests in men's and women's sizes are $98, the evening bag $89. (Write Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc. 1865 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10023.)

The Library of Congress has 73 million items in its collections so it is no surprise that some of them, as well as details of the building itself, have been chosen to decorate shopping bags, scarves and the like. A plastic shopping bag is decorated with a picture of the Neptune fountain at the Library (30 cents). The rewards of merit, given worthy pupils in the 18th and 19th century, now decorate a polyster-cotton blend scarf in the original brown on tan or navy on red ($5.95). A scarf which reproduced a painting in the Senufo style from the northern Ivory Coast is likely to end up as a wall hanging in some homes, ($5.95). A scarf copies the cherubs, or putti, carved by Philip Martiny on the grand staircase in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress building.