In a turnabout that may signal a comeback for fathers, cologne sales at the downtown Hecht's department store yesterday surpassed the sale of perfume on Mother's Day eve.

Store clerks said that business was also brisker than usual at the necktie rack and the shirt shelves, where wives and daughters congregated to debate Dad's sartorial taste. But whether Dad would like a peach-colored, pin-striped tie with a checkered gray shirt was secondary.

The fact that Dad was getting anything at all was enough.

"You guys are hot again," said Cynthia Warfield, a men's department sales clerk, as she tallied up the day's receipts. "It looks like the fellows are finally falling in line, and it's paying off."

What happened to renew Dad's popularity was not immediately clear, though several Father's Day shoppers suggested that two media events had played a role.

"It was that movie, 'The Color Purple,' " claimed Stephanie Wilkes, who had purchased a shirt and tie for her husband Charles. "My man was no 'Mister,' but he really started treating me nicer after seeing that movie."

"I think it's more because of 'The Cosby Show,' " said Elaine Ford, her shopping companion. "Cosby's wife is always doing nice little things for him, and we want to be like her."

Whatever the reason, the new attitude could mean that many fathers may be on the verge of getting their due. There are plenty out there who deserve it.

Donald Sabin of Bowie is one.

His wife Marlene said she was looking for a hammock to complement the back yard pool party and cookout that she had planned for him. "He coaches a hockey team, he's with the Boy Scouts. We have six children -- three boys and three girls -- and he has always been there to help out.

"All of our children except one who is in Idaho will be home," she said. "They are bringing our grandchildren and gifts. Believe me, Father's Day is very special with us."

"My man has been very good this year," said Lubertha Etheredge as she broused around the store. "He works hard. He takes me to dinner. And best of all, he doesn't talk back."

For that, Cedric Moore, a mail carrier, will receive a shirt, a clothes bag and a bottle of cologne. "He also gets me," Etheredge said. "That's the greatest gift of all."

Ethel Clayborne said her husband Joe, a rodman, also works hard but still has time to help take care of the children. "That means the world to me," she said. For that Joe also gets a shirt, a clothes bag and cologne.

"Shall we get Dad one tie or two?" Barbara Mattison asked her mother as she fingered a necktie rack. The two women pondered in silence for a moment and then Catherine Mattison came up with a solution:

"We'll buy two, but if the grass isn't cut when we get home, we'll give one to Uncle Floyd."

Every now and then a man would turn up at the tie rack and immediately call on a salesperson for help.

"I need something for my old man," Walter Pearson said. "I have no idea what he likes. All I know is that if I like it, he won't like it. Could you pick out something that I don't like?"

There was little doubt, based on watching many people make guesses yesterday, that many fathers will be back in the stores seeking exchanges and returns tomorrow. But some are sure to be so overwhelmed by the thought that they will actually wear their gifts and be oblivious to the laughter and sneers.

For too many fathers, this new prominence has been long in the making. It should be clear by now that the best-planned families are those that include a man. And one of the things that helps him do his job is making him feel good about being a man.

When was the last time a restaurant offered a Father's Day special? Many do it every year for mothers, sort of a gimmick to get them out of the kitchen. But the New Man cooks, and he needs a break today, too.

Who knows, one day we might even see a benched basketball player wave into the television camera and say, "Hi Dad."