Ronald Reagan was a formal man. He would step off Marine One in a finely tailored suit, tossing a wave and a smile. Even as he cut brush at his Santa Barbara ranch, his jean jacket seemed freshly pressed, his pompadour impeccable.

The same can't be said for many of his mourners, some of whom trundled past his flag-draped coffin yesterday wearing flip-flops, cargo shorts and T-shirts, their flabby midsections exposed. Some young women wore ultra-mini skirts and halter tops. Altogether, the sweaty masses clashed with the crisp honor guard in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, perhaps America's most sacred secular site.

Bobby Golike, 20, showed up to pay his respects to the 40th president in shorts, sock-less sneakers and a black T-shirt that read, "Slackers Unite! Tomorrow."

"Americans are more casual," said the Virginia college student. "I had a collar shirt and nice pants that I was going to change into, but it was kind of hot outside."

Many of the formally challenged cited the heat, the sun and the wait for their lack of funereal attire. Others split hairs, saying that paying respects to Reagan's coffin was different from attending the state funeral scheduled for today.

"It's not a formal function," said David Skorda, 34, of Annandale, in shorts and a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with, "Don't Tread on Me."

"If you're going to stand for three or four hours in the sun in a black suit, you take a chance of being a heat casualty."

That is exactly what David Kegin, 23, did. He suffered in line for 21/2 hours in a black suit, dark shirt and black tie. "It was rough," said the Senate intern from Tulsa. "I think it is out of respect to honor him. I don't think we should be wearing anything that doesn't honor him."

Former Republican senator Robert J. Dole (Kan.) agreed. Paying his respects in a dark suit and red tie, he acknowledged that times are different. Surveying the crowd, he said, "I personally couldn't go to church without a jacket and tie, but this is middle-class America."

He said that Reagan would have been pleased with the large turnout, whatever their wardrobe. "Here are the people who got him elected."

Tim Beadle, 21, a University of Maryland student, said he dressed for the weather in shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. He said he saw people fainting outside. "I'm sure Bob Dole didn't have to wait on line for three hours," he said.

He said he was properly respectful when he passed Reagan's coffin.

"I took off my hat," he said.