Decades ago, in a more genteel age, summer gentlemen clad themselves in linen and shantung, and vaguely rumpled seersucker was a status symbol.

Damon Runyon was buying such a suit when the salesman suddenly exclaimed: "I was just thinking how nice it must be to be stone rich and able to afford one of those filmy suits and keep cool when the poor dassent do it lest the material make their poverty apparent."

But these are democratic times, and the Haspel easy-care suit has become the summer uniform of the Washington male. Its fabric weight and design are ideal for tropical weather, yet sufficiently gentlemanly whatever the state of press.

"It carries cultural approval," says menswear authority Robert L. Green. "It's not stuffy because it is so functional. And it's kind of hi-tech, a work uniform that is as suitable for government workers as the zip-front jumpsuit is for the garage mechanic."

Almost every president in the last 50 years has worn Haspel suits, for good reason - the company routinely sent them to the White Houst until Richard Nixon came to office. There are seersucker and cord suits in the FDR collection in Hyde Park.

And the suit was immortalized in film when Cary Grant, piqued by Audrey Hepbun in "Charade," walked into a running shower wearing a Haspel drip-dry.

In seersucker, cord or poplin, the style has changed only slightly over the years in lapel of silhoutte refinments, and one is not likely to be noticeably out of style, no matter how old the suit.

"I'm still wearing the same two Haspel suits I bought for $50 each in 1968," says Sen. Russell Long's aide John Steen.

Haspel brothers Joseph and Harry later joined by brother William, started making light cotton seersucker suits for Southern gentlemen in New Orleans in the 1920s. William Haspel, son of the late founder and now the company's president, isn't sure exactly when.

But the wash-and-wear version of the suit was not introduced until 1955. It was a three-way joint effort among DuPont with the first synthetic blend fabric (Orlon and cotton), Westinghouse with the washing machine, and Haspel with the suit priced at $39.95 retail.

A year later, DuPont switched to a Dacron and cotton blend. In 1957 a version in Dacron and worsted wool was offered but, according to Joshua Tonkel, an officer of the company now semi-retired, the fabric became so expensive that production was stopped.

It takes a certain confidence to appear in a rumpled suit. As Runyon once said, "If you have to ask someone to endorse your check, you are not a Haspel wearer."

And as Josh Tonkel likes to say, "If you have to apologize for the crease in your pants, don't wear Haspel."

The wrinkles, light fabric and soft construction now touted as advantages were a turnoff at first to those who saw the baggy, rumpled, light clothing as a "poor man's suit." Those first models were made of "sirsaker," a fabric from India that was a favorite for pajamas at the time. But it offered the only alternative to the dark, scratchy mohair most men were wearing. And eventually Southern gentlemen found the confidence to look baggy and wrinkled in pre-airconditioning days.

By the 1930s the Haspel suit was becoming the snob garb of Ivy League students, who wore it with the attitude that you had to be rich to afford to look rumpled.

Still a family-owned company, rumors are loud and clear that it will be purchased by Palm Beach Inc. (William Haspel refuses to say more than "we are talking.")

Currently about 70 percent of the business, 300,000 tropical suits a year, are made in factories in Tylertown, Miss., and New Orleans. For other season, Haspel trades in tweeds, worsted, corduroys and the like.

Many are sold under retailers' names, and Brooks Brothers is generally credited with popularizing the poplin styles under it own label.

Thomas Saltz, 84, owner of the Georgetown University Shop (which sells about 1,500 Haspel summer suits yearly) remembers having the first Haspel suits in his original store - Saltz Brothers on F Street - in 1931.

The price was $9.95 the first year, but within two years they were $14.95. "When they got to $14.95 I remember my brother Lewis saying that Haspel was pricing itself out of business." (The current price is $125.)

Saltz doubts that many men actually wash their suits unless they are traveling. "There is too much tailoring in them to make washing practical," he insists. "They certainly last much longer if you have them dry cleaned."

At Saltz's store, poplin is the most popular fabric (in two shades of tan plus olive), followed by seersucker and pin cord. And 90 percent of the sales now are two-button models. (Haspel suits are also sold in Washington at Arthur Adler, Saks Fifth Avenue, Raleighs, Bloomingdale's and others.)

Green says another advantage is that the suit can be worn for leisure as well as business. "With a shirt and tie, a Haspel suit can go almost anywhere in Washington in the summer," says Green. "But the jacket can be worn as a sports jacket, and the pants with a LaCoste shirt are appropriate for a Saturday afternoon in Georgetown."

Maybe not the Southern gentry look, but certainly suited to the season.