It's a free country, remember, so if Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't want to get decked out like a well-dressed capitalist for the Reagans' black-tie dinner on Dec. 8, he doesn't have to.

Of a U.S. News & World Report story to that effect, Nancy Reagan's office said yesterday that neither Jack Courtemanche, her chief of staff, nor Linda Faulkner, the first lady's social secretary, has had any "specific conversation" with the State Department or the National Security Council on the subject of Gorbachev's ties.

"But there have been other state dinners when the guest of honor came in a business suit or national dress," said Mrs. Reagan's spokeswoman Elaine Crispen -- those for China's Li Xiannian, India's Rajiv Gandhi and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd being cases in point. "Invitations will still go out specifying 'black tie.' "

Gorbachev wouldn't be the first Soviet leader to shun black tie at a White House dinner in his honor. Nikita Khrushchev did it at the dinner Dwight Eisenhower gave for him in 1959; 14 years later Leonid Brezhnev did the same thing at Richard Nixon's dinner.

Meanwhile, the mail continues to bring, and the phone continues to ring with, proposals of names for the evening's guest list -- often the proponent's own. The State Dining Room can seat 126 max (at 11 tables of 10 and two head tables of eight), so chances of getting an invitation are slim.

"I wouldn't say it counts 100 percent against you by writing," Crispen said, "but I sure wouldn't suggest it."

The message seemed perfectly clear: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night could stay Nancy Reagan from her appointed rounds -- and it had nothing to do with the U.S. Postal Service. The appointment was a pledge to see Soviet e'migre' Vladimir Feltsman perform in public, and, snowed out of his Carnegie Hall debut earlier this month, Mrs. Reagan kept her promise at the Kennedy Center Sunday.

The first lady's appearance with the president in tow may have had a lot to do with human rights, however. Some advocates saw the Reagans' presence on the eve of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit as yet another pointed reminder to the Soviets that the issue continues to be a priority.

At a postconcert party in the center's Golden Circle, Feltsman and his wife Anna said they could only hope that the pressure would continue. Big-name artists are getting exit visas, Feltsman said, but for thousands of ordinary Soviet citizens the wait seems not only interminable but hopeless.

For Feltsman, his emigration last summer had a bittersweetness that went beyond family considerations. Left behind was his beloved Steinway, the piano he played in the couple's tiny Moscow apartment all those years he waited for his exit visa. Anna Feltsman said her husband gave it to Alfred Schnittke, whom she called "the Soviet Union's greatest living composer."

"We looked upon it as a member of our family, so we couldn't sell it," she explained.

Just how much Feltsman missed that Steinway was evident after Sunday's concert. Complaining to friends that the Kennedy Center's Steinway was "not the best of my life" ("he thought it was a little bit hard," Anna explained), Feltsman said he would do things differently if he is ever invited back.

"I will bring my own piano," he vowed.

President Reagan says his new hobby is collecting stories that Soviet citizens tell to one another, but one hopes he doesn't start telling them to Gorbachev -- it could blow the whole arms accord.

"They have a great sense of humor," Reagan said of the Soviets when speaking to a group of women business leaders at the White House last week. "But also they've got a certain amount of cynicism about their system."

A case in point was the story Reagan said he heard about a group of citizens who told Gorbachev that there was an old woman who refused to leave the Kremlin until she could speak to him.

When she was finally allowed in, Gorbachev said: "Well, old mother, what is it?"

"Was communism invented by a scientist or a politician?" she asked.

"Oh," he said, "I guess, politician."

"That explains it," she said. "A scientist would have tried it on mice first."

At last count, in the aftermath of her breast cancer surgery and the death of her mother, Nancy Reagan's mail, gifts and flowers totaled 33,975 pieces, sent by everybody from kings and queens to at least one street person, according to Elaine Crispen.

Letters and gifts are being acknowledged by thank-you notes sent out by the White House over Mrs. Reagan's printed signature, but telephone calls logged by White House operators and three carnations sent by "Cecilia" will have to go unanswered.

"Cecilia," as she signed the card provided by a Bethesda flower shop, personally delivered the carnations to Bethesda Naval Medical Center soon after Mrs. Reagan's surgery.

"The flower shop attendant remembered her well," said Crispen. "When she bought the carnations it was with all the coins she had in her pocket.