"I'll tell you where the name tuxedo comes from," said George Kosack of Joliet, Ill., secretary of the American Formalwear Association, as he popped a cracker into his mouth. "Have you ever heard the story about Laurel R. Griswold?

"He was invited to a party. This is in the early 1900s, I think. He wanted to look special, so he put some satin on his lapels, and maybe some stripes down the sides of his trousers. The party was in Tuxedo Park, N.Y. That night everyone thought Griswold looked great. So word got out about this great 'Tuxedo suit.'" Another cracker. "True story."

It could be worse. The party might have been in Poughkeepsie.

The members of the American Formalwear Association, in town for their annual meeting, gathered Saturday night at the Gruman-Cox estate for a reception. The house has been temporarily transformed into a "Decorators' Show House" to benefit the National Symphony.

The tuxedoed 100, along with wives and friends, oohed and aahed as they trooped upstairs and down. ("I just wish my daughter-in-law would do her rooms this way instead of spending every dime she has cluttering things up," fussed a woman from Dallas.) But by the time they reached the steaming hor d'oeuvers table out back, the talk had reverted to tuxedoes, a.k.a., monkey suits.

As in, "I don't care if they are getting married. I'm damned if I'll wear a monkey suit."

As in the strange little number you rented for the senior prom -- the one with the mortifying patent leather loafers, the shoes they were still laughing about when the yearbook came out. "I'm telling you," the clerk had said, "everyone will be wearing these. Trust me."

As in the canary cutaway you were handed for your sister's wedding. The one with the 24-inch tails.

"Oh God, monkey suits. That was in the late '30s and '40s," said Harvey Small, who has a string of rental shops in and around Philadelphia. "The saying went, "The harder you press them, the better they look.' The wing collars were detachable, and the dickeys always popped out. I don't have to tell you this -- you've seen the 'Three Stooges.'"

"Oh l oooook," drawled one of the NSO ladies peering through the dusk at the association's Jan Walker, who was standing on the veranda waiting for the second and last busload of association members to arrive.

"Look at the velveteen on his jacket!" she exclaimed to her companion. "Id'n he darlin'?"

Darling maybe, but a dandy, no. Walker and most of the group, renters and retailers, who refer to themselves as formalwear specialists, eschewed peacocky pulchritude for basic black. Not many ruffles on the shirts, either.

"We look like a bunch of waiters, don't we?" asked someone cheerily as his companions stared into their highballs and harrumphed.

The waiters, doing the careful, trayladen minuet waiters do, didn't seem to mind.No ruffles on their shirts either.

"An associate of mine," said Minnesotan Roger Hamre, "was sitting lakeside not too long ago, watching the water-skiers. One boy, a tall fella, was skiing like a maniac, falling down again and again. It was pretty funny until my friend noticed that the guy was wearing a top hat and tails. My friend, you understand, is the only guy in town who rents top hats and tails."

"Down in Texas," said Tom Bessant, who's got a passel of rental shops in Dallas, "when the boy says, 'Will you marry me?" and she says 'Yes,' the first thing they do is run out and grab a copy of Bride and Modern Bride. It's about that bad," he sighed.

"Most of my tuxes come back just fine. But I had one groom whose buddies hauled him from Dallas to Ft. Worth. Well, darned if they didn't strip him down and lock him stark naked in a motel room. They took his clothes! Left him NUDE! He hardly got to wear the tux at ALL!" A waiter whooshed by. Bessant speared a shrimp toast. "I don't recollect if I charged him for it."

"You never know how things will work out," said Small. "I once rented a guy a tux and a pair of shoes with two left feet. I was still worrying about it when the guy came in the next Monday. 'Oh, hi,' he says to me. "God, those shoes were great! I never danced so well in my life.'"