Mad Hatters

Apr 10, 2012 at 12am

I was never content with wearing women’s hats. Dainty pillbox hats reminiscent of Jackie O are not my style. Neither are the cloche hats of the 1920s, static-inducing berets, or floppy ones decorated with fussiness. I have always been secretly envious of my male colleagues who could don simple yet elegant bowlers, shiny oxfords, and fitted vests that made them look like part of a secret Gatsby society. 

So when I found out about a traditional hat shop had been taken over by four ambitious young women – dashing trousers and fedoras blazing – I excitedly decided to make the trip to the Outer Richmond. Paul’s Hat Works has been perched on the same block since 1918. Not much has changed about it since it opened, except for its new, fashionable owners. 

As I enter Paul’s Hat Works on Geary Boulevard near 25th Avenue, Olivia Griffin is perched behind the wooden counter assisting customers. She is wearing her signature navy fedora slightly tilted at a jaunty yet crisp angle over her asymmetrically cut dark hair. “A hat maker’s hat has to be unique,” she says. As proprietors of a relatively new business, the four gals serve as their own best advertising, strutting their wares along with impeccable outfits. They temper Al Capone’s smooth outlaw style with a dash of feminine whimsy.

Behind Olivia, straw hats woven in Ecuador are elegantly parked along a shelf. Up and down the walls, smooth beaver and rabbit-felt hats roost, ranging from slate gray to deep mocha brown, and polished with ribbons. In the higher reaches of the shop, over 400 vintage hatboxes are stacked into towers. Men’s ties, old records, blacksmithed hat hooks, and assorted haberdashery take up the rest of the available space.  

Olivia daintily sips a flute of champagne, and it’s easy to see why people would come to her (or to any of her equally charming co-owners – Abbie Dwelle, Wendy Hawkins, and Kirsten Hove) for style advice. When determining the right hat for a customer, the they take into account the person’s facial features, eye and hair color, occupation, preferred clothing colors, and a host of other factors including their own intuition. As a shop sign points out, Who can dress a man better than four ladies? “And we’re honest,” Olivia says pointedly.

Since taking over the once-rarely-open shop in 2009, the women have worked hard to bring the hat back into popularity. Using their textile and sewing skills, they crammed a three-year apprenticeship into six months while refurbishing the dusty space. Their excitement about the city’s return to classic hats is what drives them. Finally, Olivia explains, we are coming full circle and younger people are feeling confident about dressing up again. Men especially are stepping up their game.

When it comes to their inventory, the four Pauls (as the owners call themselves) are perfectionists down to the minute details. Their fedora, for example, has a “trolley cord” that originally slipped into a man’s lapel. When riding down Geary Boulevard, you can be sure that your head covering won’t end up in the street. Olivia turns over a top hat to show me a discreet bow in the interior, a throwback to when coachmen cinched down their hats.

The time spent making each hat and the quality of the materials means the shop’s products can cost anywhere from $150 to $5,000. While some people may balk at the price tags, many are willing to invest in a locally crafted product that is made to last. The four Pauls adhere to a strict no-glue policy, so their handmade hats can be mended and cleaned for decades. And for the more thrifty set, they are gathering pitifully abused hats – like the frumpy felt ones found at thrift stores and vintage shops – returning them to their former glory, and selling them at affordable prices. 

As Jimmie Rodgers croons from a Crosley turntable, a customer is his late 20s enters the shop. He is contemplating a rabbit-felt top hat, and is now just trying to decide on the ribbon hue from a drawer of vintage rolls. Olivia patiently answers his questions, noting custom brim and height requests, and placing a bizarre measuring apparatus on his head. In what looks like a scene from Brazil, the antique conformateur maps the customer’s unique skull curvature.

Steampunks, vintage aficionados, retired golf players, and middle-aged professionals all visit Paul’s Hat Works. Women frequent the shop as well, searching for simple hats without the frills often found in millinery. Even President Obama was recently gifted a fedora (a style dubbed the North Beach in Paul’s Hat Works vernacular) from a regular customer who reportedly said, “We gotta help get the man some style.” Check out the photo evidence.

After the last customer leaves, Olivia whisks me into the back room where stacks of wooden blocks and drying hats are stashed away. On the worktable lies an array of what looks like medieval torture devices – scissors, hot irons, and a large steaming press. The sewing machines live toward the back of the shop, but sometimes hand sewing is necessary to keep the hat’s shape intact. “Making the hat should look effortless, but there’s so much touching involved,” Olivia explains as she irons the brim of a bowler. “They should look barely handled.” 

If there ever were a place completely suited to wearing hats, it must be our fog-plagued city. The attractive fedora might be a popular hat choice, but the ladies insist the bowler is the quintessential San Francisco hat. Historically worn both by bankers and working-class men, the bowler transcends the question of day or evening wear. It has also become associated with the comedian and clown, displaying a certain playful refinement befitting our city.

The Pauls still have a ways to go before the bowler is crowned the official hat of San Francisco, as not everyone can successfully don the rounded crown and narrow curved brim. “But when done, it’s done really well,” Olivia says dreamily, feeling the smooth hat between her fingers.  I’m convinced that if anyone can bring back classic men’s hats, it’s the four gals at Paul’s.

Stop by Paul’s Hat Works in the Outer Richmond at to custom fit your own bowler hat, or pick up one of their refurbished hats.

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