Already, the bottom rungs of the golden social ladder are jammed with the breathless.

The future king of England is expected in eight weeks for his first semiofficial engagement here in four years. Which, by itself, is enough to throw any healthy society into a state of pandemonium. The last time Prince Charles arrived here, Andrews Air Force Base looked like Georgetown the night the Redskins won the Super Bowl. One woman fainted.

But this time there's more. Heightening the hysteria is the fact that Charles will present the ever-intriguing Princess Diana to Washington at three smallish dinners (and an odd stop-by at a J.C. Penney, for all of those who haven't received their engraved invitations by next week).

The visit is giving new meaning to the word "exclusive."

"You cannot believe some of the women who are calling for invitations, people you wouldn't think would stoop to call," says one who is involved in social planning for the visit. "I mean, these are upper-crust socialites -- with breeding."

Charles and Diana's whirlwind November weekend is, without qualification, the hottest social game in town this fall and social anxiety is enveloping the city, sneaking up on the still-secret guest lists and around the couture shops, knocking at the door of just about every caterer in town, all frantically competing for the limited engagements.

They arrive via Australia on the evening of Friday, Nov. 8, to launch the National Gallery of Art's "The Treasure Houses of Great Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting." The exhibit, a lavish collection of art, tapestries, jewels, books, and other objects from 200 private British homes, is the largest in the gallery's history and is being underwritten by the Ford Motor Co.

And for the $1.2 million largess, it's pretty safe to assume that Ford Chairman Donald Petersen will be on all the guest lists.

But who knows? Speculation is turning into a growth industry over this.

Consider the following:

*Vice President Bush may not be invited to the private White House dinner, instead going to dinners at the British Embassy and National Gallery. "After all," said one party planner, "this is not a state visit."

*Buckingham Palace has already informed all well-placed parties that the prince and princess do not like to see the same faces at every event. Ergo, the royal duo have put in a few guest list requests of their own for the White House dinner: Diana Ross, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood.

*Oil magnate Armand Hammer, a friend of the prince and a heavy contributor to Charles' charities, is apparently trying to shoehorn himself into every event, according to one organizer. Said that person, "Well, he'll probably be invited to the National Gallery, but I don't know about the White House. I mean, Nancy Reagan wants the evening to be young and fun. The man is 87 years old. He can't boogie."

Boogieing aside, Hammer will be on the royal private plane Tuesday, when The Couple head to Palm Beach for a polo match and dinner. Charles will play, naturally.

*Even British-born actress Joan Collins hasn't managed to get herself on a list yet. Collins has had her people "exerting a lot of pressure" for an invite to the White House, according to one source. No dice, so far, but it must be remembered that the royals do watch "Dynasty."

Some of the invitations will be going out at the end of this week, with the White House mailing its out a little later.

"It's going to be terrible," says former White House social secretary Gahl Hodges. Hodges, who has helped Nancy Reagan prepare for the November dinner, which will be small and cozy, says: "I'd say we have already received about 150 letters on the dinner and a lot of calls. Mrs. Reagan would really like to keep the numbers down and give them a chance to enjoy some of the people they meet. We are obviously not going to be able to take care of everyone."

"Let's just say it's competitive," says Muffie Brandon, who, as director of the Washington office of Rogers & Cowan, represents Ford.

"Well, I'm mad at the postal service," says American University President Richard Berendzen, albeit a little facetiously. "They seemed to have lost my invitation. Perhaps it went to Seattle."

"If I don't get invited to any of that, I'll kill," cried Betty Lou Ourisman, wife of the car magnate, to Women's Wear Daily.

Charles and Diana will be staying at the British Embassy (in the grandly decorated Laura Ashley bedroom, which had been redone for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit a few years ago), and will glide around town in Ambassador Sir Oliver Wright's silver Rolls-Royce. That Saturday evening is the White House dinner. On Sunday morning Charles and Diana will attend a service at the Washington Cathedral, and then head over for a private tour of the National Gallery exhibit, to be given by museum Director J. Carter Brown.

Later that evening, The Couple will host the traditional reciprocal dinner at the British Embassy, and will greet several hundred more well-wishers at an embassy reception the following afternoon. Monday night is the museum dinner for 60, followed by another reception for 300, which appears to be a blanket event for the powers-at-large who could not be squeezed into anything else. The congressional leadership, for instance, will be invited to that reception.

But, by far, the invite of the weekend is for Sunday lunch at the Upperville, Va., home of Paul Mellon (whose family money built the original National Gallery and the East Building). The relationship between Mellon and Britain's Windsor family is as revered as 18th-century Chippendale. In 1932, Mellon's father Andrew was presented to George V as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's.

This guest list, which will be limited to fewer than two dozen, includes Paul and Bunny Mellon, J. Carter Brown and his wife Pam Brown, and a few other rich couples from the horsey set.

Nancy Reagan is expected to invite the prince and princess for a private White House tea, though no date has been set. Those close to the first lady say that this visit is very important to her. The first lady's first official introduction to Charles and Diana was at their wedding, when she traveled to London with racks of dresses, one nurse, one hairdresser and one friend for the endless festivities.

"Mrs. Reagan feels they were so cordial and gracious to her during the wedding that she would like to reciprocate," says Hodges.

"To the point," says another White House insider, "this is her kind of deal."

Some meaty tidbits floating through the Washington channels of chatter:

*The British Embassy is anxious to keep the press away from Diana. Consequently, media coverage will be limited at every turn. Events will be covered by tightly monitored press pools, which means a few reporters will have limited access and have to share their information.

There have been numerous requests to interview Diana, and it is believed that the one most seriously considered was from Barbara Walters, who interviewed the prince before. Even that one was eventually denied.

*Other shoo-ins for one event or another: Grand Dame Evangeline Bruce, whose late husband David Bruce was ambassador to the Court of St. James's; Pamela Harriman, whose middle initial is C. for Churchill (by a former marriage); Walter and Leonore Annenberg, in their capacity as friends of the Reagans, as well as his in also being a former ambassador to Britain; First Friends Betsy Bloomingdale, who accompanied Nancy Reagan to London for the wedding, and Jerry Zipkin, who was invited the last time the Reagans entertained Charles; Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), whose sister, Lady Porchester, is married to Queen Elizabeth's horse trainer.

*There are 12 people in the royal party, known as the royal retinue, including Diana's lady-in-waiting and Charles' first secretary, all of whom must be included on the guest lists.

"That's a lot of seats," whined one planner.

*Several social types are somewhat befuddled by the royal decision to visit a J.C. Penney store. The Couple is expected at the Penney's in Springfield Mall on Monday morning to give their blessing to the store's "Best of Britain," a $50 million promotion of British products. No one is quite sure how this happened.

"El tacko," sniffed one socialite.

"We are very flattered," says Harvey McCormick, head of public relations for the chain. "Princess Diana shops at Harrods in London, and we believe we are the same type of institution here."

*The British Embassy has put out the word that it prefers Charles and Diana to be referred to as His Royal Highness, the Prince, and Her Royal Highness, the Princess, of Wales.

"Calling her Lady Di," announced one embassy official, "does not sit well with the palace."

Charles and Diana's arrival will be preceded in late October by the arrival of about 262 owners of the so-called "treasure houses," the primary lenders for the exhibit. And while they may not be the future kings and queens, the lineup is an impressive roster of British aristocracy.

The exhibition has been in the works for five years.

"As far as the gallery is concerned, it is the largest and most complex that we have ever undertaken," says J. Carter Brown. "As far as a visitor is concerned, it will be an opportunity to see some things that have never been seen before. This is the first time some of these objects will be seen out of their norm."

The Ritz Carlton will house the top lenders, known as "The Magnificent Seven," and the hotel's owner, John Coleman, will entertain them at a black-tie dinner Oct. 30.

On Oct. 31, the National Gallery will kick off its festivities at a special dinner for 600 honoring the British lenders. This event, too, should be able to dismiss numerous Washington social obligations before the royals even arrive.

"I must say that in all my 25 years associated with the gallery, I don't remember this degree of anticipation building for any exhibition," says J. Carter Brown. "And there's no question Charles and Diana are part of it . . . There's just a special glamor associated with it all . . ."

Maybe so, but even all this rare Washington enchantment and dazzle isn't for everyone.

"When you've got people who are willing to kill for one of those invitations, it's really not safe to get in front of them in line," says Democratic media man Robert Squier. "Besides, I've enjoyed the still photos so much, I'm afraid I'd be disappointed in reality."