I HAD TO BUY a white shirt in a hurry recently. The event made me vibrantly aware of a niggling nuisance that has been closing in on me for a long time -- that of matching the numbers of clothes I want to buy with my personal dimensions.

At the shirt counter, I asked the clerk for a shirt with a 33-inch sleeve. She handed me one marked "32-34." She assured me that such sleeves were all the latest rage and that everybody who was anybody was wearing them. My alternatives were 28-30 or 36-38.

I took what she offered (I told you I was in a hurry) and I spent the evening searching for my knuckles. The shirt had an extra button on the cuff that was supposed to keep all that extra sleeve length hidden up under my coat, but if I had buttoned it, my hands would have turned blue within minutes.

I had previously become accustomed to shorts with elastic waists that are classified 30-32, but that was because I needed the maximum space that 32 could offer. When I came to the point where that wouldn't do anymore, I had to move up to the next size: 34-36. I spend a lot of time pulling my shorts up. My wife has offered to put buttons on my shirttails. I think I recall some sort of connection like that on some of my clothes when I was a little kid and couldn't rely on my trousers' staying on without help.

Here's a related problem. I bought a pair of gym shorts, similarly sized 32-34. They looked small when I bought them, but I took them home full of the faith that because they had familiar numbers, I would be able to get them on. Hah! They were made in Taiwan, and what those particular Taiwanese were using for units of measure, I can't even guess. They were closer to centimeters than to inches, that much I can tell, but I don't believe any occidental measurements were involved. When I go to Taiwan, I will ask around to learn what I got 32 to 34 of.

It's even worse with socks. One size says the package, fits everybody. The clerks always seem indignant when I tell them I don't want to stuff my feet into socks guaranteed to fit Sizes 10 through 13. Occasionally I can find a pair that offers to extend to fit Sizes 10 to 14, and my toe doesn't come through those too soon.

But even that doesn't satisfy the forces that are pushing homogeneity. Dealers are seriously trying to sell footwear that is nothing but airport windsocks -- no heels, no nothing to tell top from bottom. I have a surprise for stocking manufacturers: My feet are not evolving in the direction they are moving.

Those alterations in clothes-making practices are at least obvious -- in fact, they are openly and honestly labeled, even bragged about -- but there's one other change that has arrived unheralded, so far as I can tell.

For many years, men were not subjected to the whimsical shifts in clothing styles typical of women's styles. Fairly standardly, over the years, a 32 inch seam has reached from my shoe top to where it was supposed to reach. My waist, whatever its girth, has been where I have worn my belt. Recently, I have become confused and distressed by my inability to get into -- never mind sit down in -- trousers of the same approximate size I've been wearing for years. They give me the feeling I haven't gotten them all the way on, but pulling any higher results only in anguish.

I had to stand back and look some (I'm not given to studying my reflection in the mirror as is standard behavior for heroines in Gothic novels) before I discovered what has happened. Belts have fallen from the waist to the hips. I had observed a lot of low-slung blue jeans hanging precariously on youngsters, but I had presumed that condition resulted from slippery hips or pockets full of quarters. Not so. The pants can't be forced any higher without harm to the wearer. The whole concept associated with the wearing of pants has changed. They're no longer comfortably cinched in at the narrowest part of your torso. Instead they are drawn on so tightly that friction resists gravity.

But that's enough and more than enough of what I suffer. My wife's plight is far worse. When a Size 10 dress seems too large for her, can she go to the Size 9 and expect it to be a certain amount smaller? Fat chance. She has to go to an 8. The 9 is part of another whole series of sizes. She says that series belongs on women with either longer or shorter waists or larger or smaller busts. I don't recall which. Any any rate, it isn't simply one size smaller than what she has in her hand.

For the most substantial figures, she says there is still another series; I think she said the half-sizes. I was in a store with her once and heard a woman asking for a petite dress who sure didn't look petite to me. My wife explained that she was short, hence qualified for the petite sizes. I haven't explored the matter as fully as I intend to, but it seems that a dozen different series of sizes are waiting out there to confuse a poor, innocent shopper.

When I go looking for a gift for my wife, I carry a list of sizes that range from a ring size of 7 and a shoe size of 8 through a variety of 10s, 12s, 28s, 34s and 36s. Heaven help me when I have to convert to small, medium or large. I probably won't survive metric.

Then the clerk warns me that one particular brand or another runs large or small, or has a longer waist than usual, or is skimpy around the chest.

We have in infinite variety of sizes of bodies -- must we also have an infinite variety of what a Size 36 or medium represents?

Maybe the real answer is to join the Arabs or spend our time at toga parties. I'll bet Arabs don't carry a list like mine.