"The only things," sighs advertising executive Richard Pla, "I can buy off the rack are hats and sunglasses."

New York stylist and custom designer Michael Borden has to have his watchbands custom-fitted.

The two men, both about 5-feet-4, are part of a sizeable group of men who have difficulty finding clothes small enough (and a small group of men willing to talk about it). Although statistically men in this country are getting bigger and taller, there are a lot of men around who don't fit the 5-foot-9 average male mold.

Not only do they have trouble with watchbands:

Ties are usually too long.

Socks may rise over their knees.

Belts are rarely short enough.

Lapels and cuffs are often overscale.

Off-the-rack suit selection is minimal.

Alterations are major, expensive and rarely satisfactory.

"By the time they finish altering a pair of trousers for me," complains Pla, president of Pla-Mauro Associates, "the pockets practically meet in the back."

The problem for small men is exacerbated by the fact that in Washington particularly, the office staple is a suit. For women there is far more flexibility. (Both short men and women, however, complain about the lack of fashion items in their sizes.)

Department stores defer much of the short business to specialty stores. Raleighs is one of the few stores in the Washington area that carries the extra-short range (1 inch shorter than short).

But the frequent solution for the short man is the custom-made suit. Things like sweaters and LaCoste shirts may be found in boys' departments, but the proportion in trousers, as well as fabrics, usuaslly are too juvenile for men.

Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), who laments the "pretty meager" off-the-rack selection of suits, once had most of his made in England. (Persuaded by the high cost of custom clothes, however, he's recently found a ready-made style he likes.)

"Some of the choices can be pretty strange, like brown and pink suits," says Tower, who prefers combinations of black, blue and gray.

Tower says three-piece suits have been a bonus for his size. "Ties are made for taller men, so I tuck mine into my trousers and cover it up with the vest.

So far as shoes, a considerable problem for some men, Tower says, "I simply buy very good ones when I find them and wear them for a long time. I'm a man of modest means, and I've learned that quality, not quantity is the answer.

Art collector Joseph Hirshhorn has another way of coping with too-long ties.Since age 20 or 30 (he doesn't remember which), he's been wearing bow ties.

"When you are young, you can shop in the boys' department," says real-estate mogul Sidney Zlotnick.He now has most of his clothes made in London, and it takes a grown man's wallet to support his habit. "I was shocked on my last trip to London: $800 for custom-made Lobb's shoes, $150 just to have them resoled."

Zlotnick says having sleeves shortened on dress shirts doesn't suffice. "They also need to balance the cuff."

(One New York designer is reported to have special small buttoms made for his jackets, not only to balance the proportion, but to make the whole garment seem larger.)

"It just is a lot easier to start from scratch," says jockey Willie Shoemaker, who has never bought a suit off the rack. When his suits no longer suit him, he has no trouble getting rid of them. "There are plenty of little guys around the track to pass them along to."

"If I had to wear a suit every day I'd be in real trouble," admits Borden, who defines his purchases as "separates." Just the same, trousers are often too long in the crotch, zippers too long, short belts difficult to find, "and if I can find a pair of gloves in my size, the fingers are too long." He's limited to knitted gloves and mittens.

"If your trouser has any shape -- pegged or flared -- it gets cut off when they are shortened," says Borden. "And if you don't find a good tailor who understands proportions and can move pockets, you're in trouble. Usually the breast pocket (of a jacket) which can't be moved ends up in your lap."

The armholes on vests are too deep, and sweaters too long. Umbrellas are a problem, "Not so much in length as width. You are always hitting people in the face with them."

The one bright spot in being small, concedes Borden, is that small shoes are apt to end up on the sale rack. "I've got a closet full of shoes, but I haven't been able to buy an American shoe since I was 9."

Several Washington stores offer a semi-custom-made suit to fit the needs of their small or other special-size customers. For example, at Joseph A. Bank's, a customer customer can order a made-to-measure suit for $60 above the off-the-rack price.

Richard Pla says he always gets a better fit with European readymade clothes. "My best two years for dressing were at the London film school. There I could really buy things off the rack."

He now seeks out stores like Garfinckel's and Silhouette which carry European menswear. Well before each season he puts his name on the list to be called the minute first shipments arrive with a few small sizes.

Although he has tailors shorten his ties, he says he can't afford anything else custom-fitted.

His best luck, he says, is in thrift shops where clothes from other eras were produced in top quality for smaller men. And he unabashedly looks in women's departments, often announcing, "I'm not buying this watchband, this jacket, this sweater for a wife or girlfriend. It is for me."

When unstructured jackets for women were in style, Pla found them ideal. The new fitted jackets, of course, don't work because of the darts.

The big lapel is one menswear style he's not anxious to see return. "a short person in lapels looks like he is wearing wings."

Socks? "You always have an extra 'toe' at the end of your foot."

Pla also has a gripe with the pricing of menswear for short men.

"If things come in smaller sizes they should be cheaper. Why should some giant by an Armani suit for the same price I pay for my little suit?"