Joe Williams spent Labor Day in ladies' shoes, or at least part of Labor Day, anyway. There he was yesterday, waiting in a chair at Woodward & Lothrop's Wisconsin Avenue store, surrounded by sale-driven women seeking footwear, including two friends who had now been shopping in the department for what seemed like half his life.

Williams had come to find a gift for his girlfriend. And he had. Now he was waiting for friends Danette Lucero and Millicent Trevett to finish their shopping. And they hadn't. Outside: sun. Inside: an American University political science senior named Williams.

"Normally," said Williams, 21, "I don't spend nice days in a mall."

Not just a nice day. A beaut. The best came last.

The summertime season of 1990, in which rain fell on all but five of the 14 weekends since June 1, closed in bone-dry splendor yesterday, driving thousands toward boats, beaches, picnic tables, fishing spots, volleyball nets and back-yard barbecues.

Thousands wound up in stores too, gorgeous day or no.

Labor Day is that kind of free day.

It doesn't have the family overtones of Thanksgiving or Christmas. It doesn't have the sports of New Year's Day or the patriotic rituals of the Fourth of July or the solemn ceremonies of Memorial Day. It's for working folks, and those folks tend to make it up as they get there.

For many, that meant shopping. The attraction was big sales and the necessity was, for some, the new school year, which opens this morning in many school districts.

Passing such a gem of a day in a building, however, clearly perplexed two people who had no choice but to pass the day in a building, a couple of clerks at Woodward & Lothrop who were taking a break outside and who asked not to be identified.

"Who'd spend such a beautiful day shopping?" said one as a steady stream of customers moved from the parking lot to the store. "It's depressing. The last day of summer."

"That's why we find it so hard to believe," said the other. "But it's the sales, the Labor Day sales. People always want a bargain. They come in here and say, 'The ad in the paper said you have this shirt for $14.' They're so determined. They want to know where all the items for sale are."

She added that the children's department was jammed with back-to-school hunters. The most popular fashion item for the 1990-91 school year: "Anything with the Simpsons on it," said the second clerk.

Dianne Irving and Wendy Witten were in the nearby Mazza Gallerie, shopping for school things. Such as? Shrug. Stuff. They are 16.

"We were going to go to the beach," said Witten, "but her parents wouldn't let us."

But, said Irving, "we have just as much fun here. Most of our friends went down for a day {to Rehoboth Beach, Del.} and came back. They said it was boring."

Ah, but there were true outdoor types yesterday.

The Bader family had seized a picnic table along the C&O Canal. It had been an impromptu affair because both Joe, 50, and Anne, 48, had had to tend to job-related matters in the morning. Now, just a few minutes from their home in the District, they were munching daughter Gen's brownies and trying to control Max, a 5 1/2-month-old German shepherd.

As Labor Days go, this solution was just fine, they said.

"The Fourth of July and Memorial Day are bigger days," said Joe Bader, "simply because before Labor Day there's so much to do before school gets going."

On the Virginia side of the Potomac River, opposite Roosevelt Island, Reginald Collier had a line in the water, looking for sun perch. He had kind of thrown his day together too.

"I didn't have anything to do, so I told my wife I'm going fishing," said Collier, 58, who added he was just grateful to have Labor Day off at all, considering he works for a funeral home, where business usually doesn't pause for holidays. This year, he explained, "We didn't have any calls."

Nearby, Matt Holahan and Susan George, both 20, had just beached a canoe they had been gamely rowing in the river. "We can't go straight," said George. But they had been determined to spend the day outside, doing something, anything.

"I didn't even think about Labor Day," said George. "It's just a long weekend before school starts."

They both agreed: There was no parental pressure to spend the day at home, doing family things.

"The only family pressure is to clean the garage," said Holahan.