As Jimmy Carter's hand was in the air for the oath of office Charles Renalds had his hand in the air too, holding six dresses for his wife in a crowded Fairfax City dress shop.

"I feel bad about it (missing the inauguration)," Renalds said. "But we saw so many outfits that are good buys that we just kept on going." And so like thousands of Washington area residents yesterday Renalds, 36, an Army Corps of Engineers employee, spent his holiday shopping far from the packed downtown streets of Jimmy Carter's inaugural celebration.

Most retail merchants in the suburbs reported a brisker than usual business that appeared to step up in the afternoon. Some inaugural specials like Bloomingdale's $3.50 "peanut pies" were selling well, but others, like Hecht's "Presidential Peanuts" (8 ounces in a brown bag for $1.25), went untouched.

Many people were browsing among the bargains but others were shopping with a purpose. George Miller, comptroller at Howard University, was buying a gift for his wife since yesterday was their 25th wedding anniversary. "That's more important to me than the inauguration," he said.

Then there was Jay Cooper, mayor of Prichard, Ala., who had come to Washington with his wife to see Carter's inauguration. But during the ceremonies they were out at Tysons Corner Shopping Center to buy his wife a size 13 tuxedo shirt to go with her mod-style pants suit outfit which she was planning to wear to last night's inaugural party.

"We decided it would be the better part of valor to watch it on TV," Cooper said. "There are a lot of activities we are going to participate in tonight and we decided to take a break," he added.

"I'd always said that if I lived in Washington I'd go to the inaugural.But you live here and it's cold and you decide you have something better to do," said Kay Yongson, a legal secretary for a Washington law firm as she and her husband waited in line for a seat at a Tysons Corner restaurant.

For some, however, it was not the cold weather, but a deliberate cold shoulder that kept them away from the inauguration. "I made up my mind at the beginning of the month I wouldn't go down to see Mr. Peanut under any circumstances." said John Thomas, a Virginia state liquor store employee.

And 19-year-old Peggy Shepherd found that enthusiasm for Carter and his inauguration was missing in many people as she passed out free souvenir inaugural key chains at Hecht's in Prince George's Plaza.

"I'm really surprised because usually when something is free people take it," Shepherd said. "But a lot of people refuse them. They say, 'We're not Carter fans,' or 'We're trying to get away from the inaugural.'"

For others, not anti-Carter sentiment, but indifference was the reason they weren't out in the crowds or glued to the networks' broadcasts of the event.

At a quarter to noon drinkers at the bar in the darkened cocktail lounge of College Park's International Inn were engrossed in reruns of "Love American Style." Why weren't they watching the inauguration? "That's probably the least of their concerns," said the barmaid.

A government employee who declined to be identified grumbled that the celebrations were "a waste of time and money" as he watched them on a department store's TV set. "They should just swear him in and let him go to work," he said.

Ray Wilfong, 18, a landscape worker, was more interested in the candy section of Bloomingdale's than he was in the inauguration. "I really don't care," Wilfong said about missing the inaugural.

For some who were otherwise engaged, missing the inauguration made them feel a bit guilty. Leta Decker of College Park, one of the "Thursday Morning Tigers" who bowls regularly at College Park Fair Lanes, bowed as usual yesterday.

"I thought to myself, 'Am I crazy to go bowling on inauguration day? And what if someone asks me why I'm doing it?' Buy my husband is home happens he'll tell me," she said.

Quite a few people missed the festivities involuntarily and felt badly about it. About 100 employees showed up for a normal work day at the Republican National Committee headquarters at 1st and C Streets SE. "Everybody's here but there's a lot of grumbling about it," said a worker in the committee's art department who asked to remain nameless.

The employees were permitted to watch the inauguration on TV but they couldn't leave the building to see the parade, he said.

"Gee, I really feel bad," said bank teller Fran White as she punched some numbers into an adding machine in a branch of the National Bank of Fairfax. "My boys and husband are down there but I had to say 'I have to go out and earn a living today.'"

Twenty-four-year old Steve Rudd from Richmond was high in the air in a cherry-picker lift over the intersection of Queens Chapel Road and Belcrest Street in Hyattsville changing the cable on which the traffic lights were strung as the ceremonies were beginning yesterday morning.

"I wouldn't mind going to the inauguration," he said, "but there was no way I'd get off from work here."

And even though they did not attend the inaugural observances yesterday nor vote for Carter in November, many were ready to give the new President a chance.

Carter wasn't his choice said James Porter, 29, but "that's another story" and he hung the U.S. flag outside his College Park liquor store yesterday because "He's president now and we got to give him some respect."

And standing in front of a TV, a bespectacled man watched wistfully as ex-President JerryFord left Andrews Air Force Base. "I thought Carter might be another Truman," he volunteered, "but I don't think he will, if he's half as good as Ford, though, he'll be in good shape."