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Articles Blog

Panama Hats

Karyn Planett

Chic Chapeaux

We’re going to play a little game.

But, you absolutely mustn’t cheat by secretly scanning the following paragraphs for the answer to this compelling bit of trivia. And, please don’t shout out your response (should you know it) in case others around you are puzzled by this wee bit of trifle.

Ready? Here’s the riddle. Where do Panama hats come from? Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! If you guessed Panama — you’re wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That, of course, was the obvious answer and one a silly contestant on Jeopardy might blab out (followed by endless heaps of humiliation from friends and family back home). You, the learned traveler, however should know (and maybe you do already) that Panama hats come from…Ecuador.

Makes no sense, I know. But a good story goes along with this whole tale, and it follows.

Sombrero de Paja Toquilla

That’s the official name for this handsome headgear. “Paja” is the type of straw woven to create this hat. “Toquilla” is what the Spanish conquistadors labeled this head-covering. Initially, the shape was a bit different with a flared “wing” rather than the trim brim as we know it today.

Examples of this hat were introduced into the U.S. just before the start of the 19th century. Some marketing genius convinced unsuspecting buyers that these hats actually grew on trees and were bleached white by the tropical sun.

Within a half-century, bustling Ecuadorian shops produced more than 200,000 hats for export. By 1950, some five million made their way from Ecuador to fashion capitals around the world. (Sadly, that number has declined steeply today as less expensive hats from Asia have flooded the marketplace.)

Even France’s King Napoleon III took a fancy to this decorative accessory when he caught glimpse of it at Paris’ 1855 World Exposition. Little did he and his fashion-mimicking followers realize that this fashion accouterment was nothing more than something to keep the burning sun out of the eyes of sweaty field hands toiling back in its homeland — Ecuador. In fact, these hats also served as, can you imagine, alligator bait! Unsuspecting beasts were distracted by a floating hat, while its cagey owner lurked underwater waiting to kill his prey.

What’s In A Name?

Well, you can’t blame the early prospectors who, either did or didn’t make their fortunes in the California gold mines. On their way back to their home states of the eastern U.S., these miners often traveled via the Isthmus of Panama. Saw the hat. Liked how it protected them from the sun. Called them “Panama hats.” Bought a few. Took them home. Legions of other men followed to work on the Panama Canal. Did the same. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The “Who’s Who” list of Panama hat aficionados includes everyone from British royalty to authors such as Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe. Yet it was Teddy Roosevelt who sealed this hat’s fashion fate by sporting a “Panama” following his journey to oversee the building of the Panama Canal.* American men, wanting to pump up their manly image, followed in T.R.’s booted footsteps and this hat became all the rage in America. Perhaps you even owned one.

There’s Nothing Like Quality

The toquilla bush (also called “jipijapa” – pronounced “hippy-hoppa”) is the source of this hat’s main ingredient. When the bush has grown for approximately three years, its long stalks are stripped to reveal superfine threadlike fibers within. For the next several days, these fibers are boiled and dried, boiled and dried, boiled and dried until they’re sufficiently strong for the weavers.

Conditions must be perfect for these weavers — not too hot for the fibers will break; not too moist for the weavers won’t be able to get a tight weave. Therefore, you’ll discover that most of the work is done by, sadly, women and children under overcast skies, the cool of dawn and dusk, or even under a moonlit sky.

Makers of the “Superfinos” boast that these hats are woven so tightly that, not only can they hold water, they can pass easily through a man’s wedding band. (Why would you want to do either?) Today, Monticristi and Jipijapa are Ecuador’s leading centers for hat production.

So, why not pick up one of these handsome devils, ease it onto your head at a rakish angle, then stroll lazily about the deck in your finest white linens. You must admit, it is a fine fashion statement.

*This 1906 trip was the first time an American president traveled outside the U.S. My, how times have changed.