It's like Ronald Reagan's gala inaugural week here, only worse. Or much better -- if you belong to the frenzy of royal wedding parties, country house dinners and first-lady sightings. England is suffering its worst recession in half a century, but high society soldiers on. From the Bruce Oldfield gowns to the imported bandleaders to the delicate veal, London is dancing and spending.

Gossip is a growth industry. As the tension mounts during the week of The Wedding, peculiar scenes and rumors spring up in the damp London air. o

Why is the bride-to-be biting her nails? Where will Nancy Reagan sit on the wedding day? With whom did Lord Thorneycroft talk at Winfield House?

But then there are matters of cosmic consequence:

Lady Diana has already cried once -- at a polo match on Saturday -- apparently upset by the persistence of the papparazzi. The prince comforted her in his Aston Martin, and then she was driven away.

"The occasion," he said, "was just a bit too much for her."

But she bounced back today, collected in pink silk dress, ever the darling of the British Isles. "She's got a lot of pressure on her," said a fan at another polo match today. "I'd feel like crying too."

Nancy Reagan is receiving a bruising from the British press. "The restrictions imposed on her behalf were more regal," griped the liberal-leaning Guardian, "than anything attempted by Buckingham Palace in recent memory." There has alos been a flap over her decision not to bow to the queen. "'I Won't Bow,' Says Nancy" was how one tabloid put it, spreading the headline across two pages.

Nancy Reagan arrived at Prince Charles' polo match today in her chauffeured limousine, replete with traveling entourage. Observers couldn't help noticing the queen driving up later at the wheel of her station wagon. Princess Anne followed in a Range Rover.

But Lady Diana's stepmother, Raine Spencer, is suffering even more at the hands of the press. Referred to in the tabloids as the "wicked stepmother," word has it that she and Lady Diana are feuding. Chuckles one snoop, "She'll either be given a seat way back to St. Paul's, so far back that she'll need binoculars, or a front seat in Westminister Abbey. Half the lot is not talking to the other lot. Just like any other wedding, I'd say."

But now, with only three days to go, a look at the show.

"I have so much to tell you," Nancy Reagan said to a guest at a dinner given by U.S. Ambassador John Louis at Winfield House tonight. Guess who? Barbra Walters, of course.

Rarely has Nancy Reagan seemed so natural in front of so many people. At this dinner in her honor, she laughed with reporters and joked with guests.

"MS. SHEILA TATE!" came the announcement for the receiving line of the first lady's press secretary.

"What was the name again?" Nancy Reagan joked to Tate. "Ah, I see. Just arrived here?"

And for Tom Brokaw: "I've been reading about you in the papers."

"Are you going to start asking me questions?" Brokaw replied.

"Yes, I am!" Nancy laughed. Then she poked him, laughing again.

And at one point when Nancy Reagan was posing for pictures with friends from her acting days, Princess Grace of Monoco and Douglas Fairbanks, Peter McCoy, her White House staff director, told photographers that was enough.

"Peter," said Nancy Reagan, "you didn't give them a chance." So everybody snapped again.

The guests at this party were a mix of nobility, politicians and journalists. The duke and duchess of Marlborough came, as did London Times editor Harold Evans. Then there was Washington's grande dame Evangeline Bruce, Princess Alexandra, Estee Lauder and the duke of Norfolk. And Betsy Bloomingdale, the First Friend. She's everywhere, too.

It was the first time in four years that Winfield House had been so alive. Under former ambassador Kingman Brewster, parties at the embassy residence were more subdued. But last night there was glamor. In fact, political stars like Francis Pym, leader of the House of Commons, and David Owen, of the Social Democratic Party, found themselves in a rare moment out of the limelight. Royalty and the Reagan party were the evening's most sought-after clique.

It was interesting to note the differences between gowns selected by the nobility and those selected by the merely rich. The nobility tended toward flowered, pastel chiffons, while the rich went for pizaaa. Award for Best Pizazz could have gone to Countess Herrera, who wore a tangerine-colored dress that hid her knees in the front and swooped down to her ankles in the back. Behind one shoulder were two big loops of fabric, vaguely suggesting a bumblebee wing. One admirer wondered how it hadn't got crushed in the car ride over.

"In any time of gloom," observes Lord Lichfield, the royal wedding photographer and trendy earl who was Mick Jagger's best man, "people somehow find a moment for what the English call a 'knees-up.'"

"There's been a total outburst of parties," says Tina Brown, editor of The Tatler, the glossy society magazine that falls somewhere between Town & Country and Vogue. The aristocracy, she says, has "come out of the closet."

Last summer, for instance, the duchess of Rutland gave a ball at Belvoir Castle for her son, the marquess of Granby, and her daugher, Lady Theresa Manners. There were 800 guests, some dancing to a band inside the castle, others to disco music in a garden beneath a spotlight. The band was still playing at 11 a.m. when the last guests left by motorcycle.

Observers estimate the number of society parties this week from a conservative "scores" to a liberal "hundreds." The top billing is the queen's reception at Buckingham Palace Monday night. Nancy Reagan is to attend after watching a performance of the Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Royal Opera House, and perhaps because the dress requirement is white tie "with tiara optional," she'll make a changing stop enroute from another function where merely black ties will be worn.

Other attractions on the circuit that same night include Evangeline Bruce's party at Albany, the London apartment house with much more cachet than the oldest Georgetown address. There's also the Berkeley Square Ball, normally an acceptable society event. But this year it's expected to be slightly "downmarket," in the words of Brown, "because no one who hasn't been included at Buckingham Palace will admit it by going to the Berkeley Square ball."

And then there's Lady Elizabeth Shakerly's party for 400 at Claridge's, to be held the night of the wedding.Nancy Reagan is going, as is the queen, says Lady Elizabeth. Lady Elizabeth runs Party Planners, London's exclusive caterers. She is also related to royalty.

Which is important. Who is married to whom and descended from whom is of course taken quite seriously among the upper classes attending the wedding. By and large, they still marry each other.

For instance: The duke of Westminister, who has the essential qualifications of youth, looks, money and land (he has owned the land under Cape Canaveral), is brother to Lady Leonora Grosvenor, who married Lord Lichfield, who is the trendy photographer. The duke of Westminister's other sister is Lady Jane Grosvenor, who married the duke of Roxburgh and now lives in a costle. It's nice to marry a duke, since there are only 26 the them, assuming you exclude the royal dukes.

Some dukes are better than others. For example, the duke of Wellington is very in because he's highly attractive, but the duke of Marlborough is not because he's considered by some to be not overly witty. The duke of Beufort is a friend of the queen mother's and part of what is indelicately referred to as "the wrinkly set." Many dukes never venture for off their country estates. And the duke of Sutherland hardly appears at all.

Nobility and society actually began their large-scale entertaining several years ago, deciding that under the Tory government they shouldn't be ashamed to throw around British pounds. "Their attitude is," says Peter Townend, social editor of The Tatler, "as long as one has a bit of money, it's up to one to spend it as one wishes."

Nothing seems too much. Prince Andrew, Prince Charles' younger brother, who is often dubbed "Randy Andy" because of his enthusiasm for women, had a giant birthday with his friends and family at Windsor Castle last month. Elton John performed and Queen Elizabeth retired early, at 2 a.m.

Popping up at the best parties is Nancy Reagan. Perhaps because of security, she has been as publicly scarce, to borrow a local expression, "as last season's grouse." This is annoying the British press.

"The one-time starlet of such B-films as 'The Next Voice You Hear' (1950) and 'Hellcats of the Navy' (1957), flew into Heathrow yesterday," wrote the Guardian. "Asked if she was looking forward to the royal wedding, she replied: "Yes, I am." Those turned out to be the last public words which anyone is destined to hear from the former Nancy Davis during her week-long visit to Britian."

The Guardian also appeared fuffled by Nancy Reagan's decision not to release her wedding day attire until Tuesday, 24 hours ahead of Lady Diana.

"We certainly don't want to compete with the bride," Sheila Tate, the first lady's press secretary, said.

In addition, there was speculation about how far back Nancy Reagan would sit in St. Paul's Cathedral for the wedding itself. Buckingham Palace says it hasn't decided for sure.

"I can't imagine she'd be in the front row," said a palace spokeswoman. "It's not large enough." The front row will taken by family and royalty.

"Obviously," said the spokeswoman, "there are lots of other people besides Nancy Reagan coming."

But Nancy Reagan appeared to be receiving VIP, if not royal, treatment. On Saturday, she attended a lunch at Chequers, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's official country residence, and that night she went to a dinner given by Princess Alexandra at Thatched House Lodge.

Chief among the gossips is Class A snoop James Whitaker of the Daily Star.Not only has he written a quickie book about the royal pair, but he was also approached, he says, for wedding commentary by CBS. All was set to go until, says Whitaker, he demanded payment, upon which CBS backed off.

Whitaker, who admits that "there's no longer the thrill of tracking Prince Charles in Scotland and wondering which bird it's going to be this week," says that Lady Diana's stepmother is so upset about her own bad publicity that she may not go to the wedding. She is under attack for, among other things, leading paid tours that included a stop at Lady Diana's childhood estate. The tours begain a year ago, but she's nonetheless been accused of "cashing in" on the wedding.

Other items, possibly true, possibly not, from the front:

Lady Diana has lost 14 pounds. She's an inch smaller around the waist, and two inches reduced somewhere else. Nervousness, not diet.

Friends say that Lady Diana was in love with Charles for years before he finally noticed her. They're also convinced it was her determination, far more than suitability, that brought him around.

Lady Diana does a good Miss Piggy imitation.

Lady Diana once worked for six weeks as a salad girl and occasional bartender at a luncheon club in London. She doesn't drink much, but has been known to make short work of a gin and tonic.

Prince Andrew was lying low until the weekend. That's because he's taking a secondary helicopter training course at the Royal Naval Air Station near Cornwall.

Author Gor Vidal, included on one big-party guest list, hasn't materialized. He's in Rome and plan s to sit out the wedding. "I don't spend my time going to parties," he said by phone.

Meanwhile, with only a few days remaining before the wedding, Nancy Reagan has eight official events left to attend. Two of them, a visit to the Spastics Society and a laying of a wreath at St. Paul's, aren't social.

She seems to be holding up well, as is the rest of London. "We needed a wedding to pick us up," says Lord Lichfield. "It's a great lift."

A direct beneficiary of all the hooplah is Bruce Oldfield, dressmaker to the rich. His shop, stuffed with half-finished gowns of satin and sequins in the chic Knightsbridge area, s strategically located across Beauchamp Place from Sam Lorenzo's restaurant, out of which women emerge and, Oldfield says, "roll into my shop."

Oldfield is 31, flashy and shrewdly indiscreet about certain colorful clients. He knows they are good newspaper copy. He also knows that these colorful clients are fond of almost any publicity.

"The baroness de Portanova!" he says, "Portanova! She comes in and spends 6,000 francs! She lives for two months in Claridge's, two months in the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, and they've got houses, yachts. She's a big girl, a big, blooming Texas lady, married to an Italian baron. I don't know what the title is, but they're so rich it doesn't matter."

It is Saturday before the wedding, and Oldfield will work through the weekend. He figures he's had three Sundays off since Christmas, what with the 15 balls in London and the surrounding countryside during the past 2 1/2 months. "It's pretty amazing," he says.

Oldfield, whose clientele is more jet-set than English country girl, is actually making only a handful of dresses for the royal wedding guests and partygoers. "They're not my women, really," he says. He believes his clothes are "more sophisticated" than the Emanuel gowns Lady Diana prefers.

"I don't think I'd dress her the way she's being dressed," says Oldfield. "She needs to be a little simpler. Get rid of some of those bows. Tidy her up a bit.

"One cannot," he continues, "make heads or tails of this wedding. Annabel Elliot is invited, but then Annabel Astor isn't. It doesn't make sense. It's obviously for the English country set."

Oldfield, who wears a Saint-Laurent plaid shirt, Giorgio Armani trousers and Brooks Brothers loafers, is snipping away at some green satin, part of a dress for Countess Dominique de Borchgrave, cousin of Arnaud de Borchgrave, Washington presence and author of the novel, "The Spike."

The phone buzzes. It's the baroness de Clare, who wants to know how her 3,000 francs gown is coming along. "It looks fabulous," Oldfield says. "Looks really lovely." They discuss her fitting. "So we'll do it on Monday?" Oldfield says. "But will you be able to take Portanova's things? mShe really screaming at me."

The Polo Match, Sunday: Everybody was worried that they, too, might have cause to scream. But Prince Charles stayed on his horse.

"He's extremely courageous to play three days before his wedding," said Bobby Stewart, an Edinburgh financial consultant watching on the sidelines. "Mad."

Charles was polaying in a match sponsored by Imperial International, one of the biggest cups in polo. England played South America and lost and then England II played Spain and won. Charles is on the second team, but is considered a fine player with his four-goal handicap. Anything above a 2 or 3 handicap is quite good.

But the polo was just part of the scene. The match was played on Smith's Lawn, near Windsor, under partly sunny skies, a soft breeze blowing the flowered skirts and conservative ties of the English gentry. Somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 came to watch on the lush, green lawn, buying Pimm's Cups from the vendors and listening to the Welsh Guards play. They marched in front of the Royal Box where Nancy Reagan sat, their redcoats flapping in the breeze.

In a private meeting before she entered the box, Nancy Reagan greeted Queen Elizabeth II with a handshake and the slight nod of her head, according to press secretary Sheila Tate. Some British newspapers, in their late editions, said it appeared that Mrs. Reagan was about to bow but changed her mind. "You would not call it a bow or a curtsy," the tabloid Daily Express quoted Willie Lloyd, a polo official who said the meeting. "It was somewhere between the two." The London Daily Mail charged that Mrs. Reagan had made a "phantom curtsy" to the queen.

Later Nancy Reagan spoke amiably with those in the box and frequently applauded the action on the field. "My husband would be jealous if he knew what a good time I've been having here," said the first lady. She said her week's stay in Britain marks the longest separation from her husband in 29 years of marriage.

The Royal Box itself would seem odd to Americans. It is just a small, fenced-in area with a small stone platform rising a foot and a half from the grass. On the platform are the seats for the royalty. The back row is composed of plastic chairs, the front of well-worn wicker.The seats for the queen and Prince Phillip were two old-fashioned rose prints, looking a little like old summer porch chairs that have been left around for years.

There is also a tiny little building closed into the Royal Box, looking something like a shed. But around it are marigolds and petunias, and inside, the queen has her tea.

During the match, Nancy Reagan talked mostly to Prince Philip.

He tried to explain polo to her. "I don't think I have all the fine points down," she said afterwards.

Not that there weren't play-by-play descriptions from the announcer, very British and witty. At one point, Prince Charles made an aggressive move on the field. "Prince Charles," boomed and announcer, "obviously not worried about any day in the future, really rode in there."

Lady Diana at the Sunday Match: The first thing you notice is how young she is. After seeing her pictured in sophisticated dresses and low-cut gowns, seeing her in person is a little bit startling. She is very pretty, but she is a young girl.

And she's not shy. Coy, perhaps. After crying at Saturday's polo match, she was composed at Sunday's. She sat in the front row of the Royal Box during the first match when Prince Charles didn't play, but slipped into the enclosed area while Prince Charles was on the field. She watched the match through the glass window, safely out of range of most of the photographers. The few who could see her saw a lively girl, laughing and talking with Prince Andrew. At one point she kissed him on both cheeks, then laughed again.

On Saturday, Lady Diana was said to be more overwhelmed by the pressures and the photographers. But what seemed to snap it for her was a moment during the polo cup award when photographers aimed their lenses in her direction instead of the presentation on the field. Her face reddened and she walked quickly from the stand. When the photographers were out of range, she cried.

Perhaps what was most noticeable about the polo match Sunday was a civilized air. The cheering was exuberant, but restrained. Nobody could move during the play of the game. There was jostling for standing room, but often accompanied by "Oh, please won't you excuse me?"

"This is Britain," said Stewart, the financial consultant. "We only have 50 million, not 200 million. One can afford to be polite." CAPTION: Picture 1, Queen Elizabeth and Nancy Reagan at Windsor, England, where Prince Charles played in a polo match.; Pictures 2 through 4, no caption, Design by Robert Barkin -- The Washington Post; Picture 5, First Lady Nancy Reagan with Prince Philip; Picture 6, Lady Diana Spencer in diamonds, Photos by AP/UPI