Close observers at a meeting last month in Brussels between Spanish and U.S. diplomats were intrigued to see Spanish delegate Vicencio Arias slip Secretary of State George Shultz a small envelope. A secret treaty? Intelligence report for His Eyes Only? Diplomatic note?

None of the above, explained State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb. The day before, Shultz had admired the Spaniard's bow tie. The envelope contained a gift bow tie for the secretary.

Shultz has long been known as a bow tie Brummel. He says "bow ties are terrific. And they don't get in the soup."

Bow tie wearers are fit to be tied following a denunciation of the tie that binds by "Dress for Success" author John T. Molloy in his column in this month's Success magazine. Molloy tied one on bow tie wearers, saying their colleagues don't trust them and lawyers won't put them on juries.

"But if you absolutely insist on wearing one," he wrote, "I suggest you buy the proper accessories for it: a red nose and a beanie cap with a propeller."

"A great advantage of wearing bow ties is so no one will mistake you for a lawyer," retorts political columnist George Will. But he admitted there might be reason for legal suspicions. "The bow tie wearer is an independent thinker -- no wonder lawyers don't want bow tie wearers on juries." Will says the average nonlawyer looks at his bow tie and is "struck dumb with admiration and raw envy."

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), as likely as a Christmas present to wear a bow, scoffs at the idea that bow tie wearers are untrustworthy. "Nonsense!" he exclaims. "I trust George Will and Archibald Cox implicitly."

Molloy, expanding his views by telephone, claims he researched the question for 20 years:

"At one time bow ties were the mark of a reporter -- remember the movie 'Front Page'? To some people a man in a bow tie registers as a lightweight clown, childlike. A bow tie wearer is an outsider. I know a construction company chairman who always wears one to talk to artists. It's rather like when Jimmy Carter wore a sweater, an effort to look likable and friendly, not to establish authority.

"Older lawyers say wear bow ties only if you have a poor case, or want to be seen as a maverick. Bow ties register as antiestablishment, just the thing if you were suing General Motors. A lawyer in a bow tie is saying, 'I'm real folk, don't think of me as a million-dollar lawyer.' "

The response so far to Molloy's column has been vehement. "One man with 300 bow ties challenged me to mud wrestle," he says.

Bow ties aren't the thing to look out for in jurors, says Washington lawyer Mark Sandground, who wears them himself. "If they wear a frown, that's when you're in trouble. You want a juror who looks content."

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a constant wearer of bow ties, declined to hand down a judgment on Molloy's remark, but his aide said, "the justice will be interested to hear other opinions."

Some lawyers are even modeling their own haberdashery after beau ideal judges in bow ties. Arlington Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Kendrick says a number of judges, including himself and Judge Carleton Penn of Leesburg, have perhaps served as model bow tie wearers. "I'm finding more lawyers are realizing the beauty of bow ties and wearing them themselves. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's because more judges are wearing bow ties . . ."

No one wants to claim that bow tie wearers are ordinary uniform dressers. Bill Blass, a longtime fashion authority, says bow tie wearers are "a cult, a signature look for intellectuals, a highly personal signature." He warns: "Bow ties look best below a craggy face. And they should never be worn by a man who is self-conscious about them."

"Historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., tend to wear bow ties," says Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, currently writing a book on "The Creators." His research, he says, shows that bow ties are indicative of "competence and human dignity."

Just before Success magazine went to press with Molloy's denunciation of bow ties, an observant staffer pointed out to editor Scott DeGarmo an embarrassing conflict. Success founder and columnist W. Clement Stone of Chicago, the Nixon administration insider, wears bow ties.

"Stone can take it," decided DeGarmo. "Besides, the magazine is in the process of changing hands."

Molloy did not get fired. But Stone, founder of Positive Mental Attitude Communications Inc., thinks Molloy "isn't aware of psychological principles. He has it in reverse."

Stone says he has 250 bow ties, collected over 30 years. Activity Vector Analysis, a self-improvement system, taught him that bow tie wearers are "full of vim and vigor, aggressive and full of drive. They are the best salesmen and entrepeneurs."

Never mind lawyers, do voters trust men who wear bow ties? So much so, says Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), that his bow tie is his trademark.

Simon has been wearing bow ties since he was called "The bow tie candidate" by a newspaper during his first campaign. "Instead of a button, we use a little silver bow tie pin as an emblem." Every other week he has a request for one of his used bow ties to be auctioned off for something like the Smithsville PTA to raise band uniform money. "It's a little expensive," Simon says, "but I don't lose bow ties to gravy."

With all that settled, one more point united all bow tie wearers: their contempt for those who wear clip-on, ready-tied neckwear. "The beauty of a bow tie," Judge Kendrick says, "is that it always looks different, depending on how you tied it."

That beauty remains lost on Molloy, however, who when pressed, reveals at least one probable cause for his prejudice. "I can't tie them," he says.