There's something rather sleepy about overcoats that feel like old chenille bedspreads and wool pants that could pass for pajama bottoms. There's even a breakfast component to this slumbering attitude for men: big, sloppy cardigans as lumpy as oatmeal. Sounds delicious. Now what's for lunch?

Working months ahead of their customers, American menswear designers have been showing their fall collections to retailers and editors. The news is promising for men who prefer subtle changes in suits, easier colors and less conventional casual clothes. In other words, who needs another pair of khaki pants and a crew-neck sweater? Andrew Fezza shows slim knit pants, for instance, that are a cozy cross between sweat pants and leggings. He layers long chenille cardigans over poor-boy ribbed sweaters, a mix-it-up message that carries over to colors (variations in muddy blues, for instance) and tailored clothes. His handknit sweaters will retail from $285 to $375.

Joseph Abboud also shows slouchier pants, notably with hooded sweaters that resemble baggy sweatshirts. These appear under plaid CPO jackets or shearling vests, ostensibly for the man who likes insouciant style as long as someone else puts it together for him. Nigel Cabourn, on the other hand, suffers no such pretense. The British designer has a knack for taking the starch out of casual clothes -- his oilcloth coats, faded sweat pants, blanket jackets and big rugby-striped shirts come with that lived-in look.

Overall, there's a feeling that sportswear should be as friendly as an old bathrobe, but with a pronounced urban edge. "I think designers right now are after a more modern look, with pieces that don't stand out but blend into what someone already owns," says Colby McWilliams, men's fashion director at Neiman Marcus.

By the way, more menswear designers held fall shows this season, mostly in the hopes of establishing a schedule similar to that of women's wear designers. But putting on a show is costly. Marilyn Fezza, who works closely with her husband, says their show -- the first since 1985 -- cost between $100,000 and $150,000. "We stopped doing shows for several reasons -- obviously cost, but also we just didn't feel like putting ourselves through all the criticism," she says. "The press can be very cruel."

But the press was kind this time. The Daily News Record, the menswear trade publication, put Fezza's lanky field jacket on its cover and a glowing review inside.

The Best-Dressed Short List

As opinion polls go, the International Best Dressed List isn't so much a popularity contest as it is an occasionally useful record of public tastes. There are 159 candidates this year, among them the Duchess of Kent, the model Naomi Campbell, Deborah Norville, Danielle Steel, Tom Cruise, Arsenio Hall, Anne Marshall Zwack (wife of the Hungarian ambassador) and John F. Kennedy Jr. There are also several husband-and-wife combos -- such as Georgette and Robert Mosbacher and Michael and Diandra Douglas -- but nobody is obliged to pick both. As it happens, only a handful of couples qualified for enshrinement in the Best Dressed Hall of Fame for the '80s, among them the Prince and Princess of Wales. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan made it but Nancy didn't.

As usual, ballots went out to more than 2,000 voters -- mostly designers, editors and people who follow fashion -- and Eleanor Lambert, the poll's coordinator since 1940, has been collecting the returns in shopping bags in her New York office. Her committee plans to meet next week to make the final selections: 12 men and 12 women "who most typify today's fashion with individual distinction and influential flair."

Trouble is, there may not be 24 people worthy of being listed this year.

"It's impossible today to honestly make a list of best-dressed people and expect to have 12 men and 12 women if we don't feel there are that many. I don't think we have to insist on that number," says Lambert. "The fact is, there are so many other things in life than clothes." The biggest factor may be that people are more individual in their dress but not necessarily stylish or noteworthy. In any case, the committee may opt for a short list.

Post Scripts

Mary McFadden will be in town this week. She'll be giving a lecture, "Symbols of the Ancient World in Fabric Design," at the Mayflower Hotel on Friday. The luncheon and lecture, beginning at 11 a.m., is part of the week-long Entertaining People benefit series on decorating and design. Tickets are $60 and reservations can be made by phoning 202-332-1697.

And Lord & Taylor is hosting an "executive spring fashion show" with Working Woman magazine tomorrow night at 6 in its Washington store. The magazine's editor-in-chief, Kate White, will talk about "How to Get the Image for Success." Tickets are $15 and can be reserved by calling 202-362-9600.

Recession Dressing John Peterman has something of a cult following for his catalogues, slim "manuals" of style for people who associate clothes with places of the mind -- such as a sidewalk cafe in Paris or twilight in the African bush. "In East Africa, the British dressed for dinner," goes a description for cotton pants. "One poor chap, thanks to some dreadful oversight, didn't have his white bush pants with him. He was banished from joining the others for dinner. For the remainder of the three-month trip." Oh yes, the pants are $39.

Needless to say, the J. Peterman Co. defies the usual theories for mail-order success. Instead of glossy pictures in the catalogues there are sketches, and rather than straight-forward descriptions there are Peterman's rambling meditations from his office in Lexington, Ky. On a terry cloth bathrobe: "I always wanted to cross the Sahara, and the Gobi, by foot. But I didn't. I did not swim the Hellespont. Didn't ascend Mont Blanc. ... Ached to fly a Ford tri-motor anywhere." On an Irish hacking jacket: "Human clothing based on the things that horses have taught us over the years is itself pretty graceful stuff."

The literary approach is apparently working. "We did very, very well in 1990," says Peterman, who started the company five years ago after leaving the food business. He also played ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates for a while, which explains certain vignettes. But his classic clothes happen to be right for the times too. Last month Peterman put out an "anti-recession manual," with markdowns on some of the company's most popular items. "It's the first time we've had a sale, and it's not an annual affair, just something we wanted to do for our customers," says Peterman. "To do our part for combating the so-called recession."

One thing Peterman isn't interested in doing is capitalizing on the Persian Gulf War, though many of his clothes and vignettes are evocative of military history. He will mention in the spring catalogue that his aviator sunglasses are worn by American pilots in Saudi Arabia, but that's all. "I do think there's going to be a more patriotic flavor to clothes," he says. "But I don't think I want to jump on that bandwagon."