"Wearing black tie makes men arrogant," said Philip Merrill, Washingtonian magazine owner, in his colorful tie and business suit, the other night at John and Deborah Toll's dinner party for Gordon and Ann Getty.

John Toll, president of the University of Maryland, and his wife Deborah give parties as elaborately planned as though they were given by the president of the U.S.A. instead of the U-Md. On Memorial Day Observed, on the eve of commencement, the dinner honored oil-rich Getty, there to receive an honorary doctorate of arts and hear his own musical compositions performed (both at the non-black-tie dinner and at commencement).

"Too many people in Washington are wearing black tie too often. Black tie catches them up in their own importance. It's a bad thing for the country. I want to take away black ties, limousines and private jets," added Merrill, over strawberries under a red-striped tent. "And that applies to the press. It's all about how we deal with ceremony. Before long, the country is going to be one endless Hilton ballroom, beginning in Annapolis and winding through Washington to Newport Beach, California."

"Black and white is the most powerful combination," said Deborah Toll. "And it sets off the colors women wear. We're having a black-tie dinner for Marine Gen. P.X. Kelley coming up, and so it'll be appropriate for him to wear full uniform."

"Gordon Getty turned down black tie," Deborah Toll said. "He said he wanted to have it 'California Style.' Well, of course, California Style means something different in California than it does in Maryland. There it means handsome, handmade casual clothes. I wouldn't say that here, because people would come in open shirts! Actually, if we'd talked over the arrangements with Ann Getty instead, we would have had black tie. Our chorus director Paul Traver has been to black-tie, candlelight-only dinners for 120 at the Gettys' house in San Francisco, overlooking the bay."

Apparently trillionaire Getty's style is generally casual. Or, as Deborah Toll said, "focused." Getty showed up three-quarters of an hour late for the commencement day ceremonial lunch last Tuesday. He had found the university's new computer piano, which allows you to play a performance back and correct the errors.

As for John Toll, he "better should have been born with a coat of feathers for all the interest he takes in clothes," his wife quoted his mother Merle as saying.

Speaking for himself, Toll said, he doesn't agree with Merrill's view about black tie and arrogance: "Clothes don't make the man." And Toll said he, personally, likes black tie. "We had a black-tie affair, a gala recently for the President's Club, the 1,000 people who have given a million each to the university. People enjoyed it. I like black tie because the ladies dress up so much it makes it enjoyable."

Both former deputy treasury secretary Richard G. Darman and Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) -- during Senate Finance Committee hearings last year on a tax break on depreciation of rental tuxedo dinner jackets by retailers -- admitted their tuxedos are 17 years old, perhaps a quasi-arrogant admission.

Surgeon and social leader William Funderburk says black tie makes people "more elegant, not arrogant. I enjoy the variation in dress. I like the ambiance it gives."

In Washington, black tie came into its own during the Eisenhower administration, Merrill pointed out. "Before then, it was white tie at the White House. Think of that!"

The deciding factor may been the visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in September 1959. At the state dinner, Dwight Eisenhower, as usual, wore white tie. Khrushchev wore a dark suit with a gray tie, which Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire described as looking like the clothes he was wearing when he got off the plane. The next night, at the Soviet Embassy return dinner, Eisenhower wore black tie -- and Khrushchev wore his business outfit again.

The tuxedo, more formally called "dinner jacket," originated when tobacco heir Griswold Lorillard cut off the tails on his dress coat to go to the Tuxedo Park, N.Y.'s first Autumn Ball in 1886. The prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and still later the duke of Windsor, was the first to wear a midnight-blue dinner jacket in the 1920s and the double-breasted version in 1932.

As for the white dinner jacket and even more colorful alternatives, all proper men took them out and burned them after Miss Manners handed down the opinion (in her "Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior") that odd colors and ruffles and flourishes are abominations. She added: "Nothing is acceptable to her but the strictest black, winter or summer, and the very plainest of stiff white shirts."