The Panama hat is an icon of Panama. They keep the sun off your face in an incredibly stylish fashion, as well as being a perfect souvenir for your loved ones back home.
The Panama hat has been around for over 100 years. Theodore Roosevelt and his team proudly sported their Panama hats upon returning from Panama in 1906, during which they visited the Panama Canal construction.
Later, the glamorous style of the 1940s put these hats on an even more visible pedestal. Throughout history, people from all walks of life, including presidents, artists, and politicians, have sported Panama hats. Household names throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have used the Panama hat, including Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Paul Newman, Alberto Santos Dumont and celebrities of today like Johnny Depp, Sean Connery, Kevin Spacey, Madonna, Monica Bellucci, and Javier Bardem, among many others.
Following are 5 facts that you may not have known about the famous Panama hat:
1. The Panama hat is made entirely in Ecuador
This fact usually tops the list of Panama hat facts. Though it may no longer be “little known”, it’s a fun fact to share since many people still believe that the Panama hat is made in Panama, an easy assumption to make!
Panama hats are hand-woven in Ecuador by craftsmen hailing from the cities of Cuenca and Montecristi. These hats became known as “Panama hats” due to their massive export from Ecuador to Panama during the 19th century, promoted by Manuel Alfaro y Gonzalez and his wife during the construction of the Panama Canal. Legend has it that Manuel Alfaro y Gonzalez provided the hat that Theodore Roosevelt was photographed using during the Panama Canal inauguration on the condition that he said that the hat had been made in Ecuador, which did not happen. To make the Panama hat’s origin even more unclear, the hats were exported worldwide from Panama, leading people to associate them with their shipping origin rather than their manufacturing origin.
Creating a Panama hat includes over 30 steps, from the selection and harvest of the toquilla straw to the tightness of the weave. The two most common weave patterns for the Panama Hat are the Brisa and the Cuenca. Read more about Panama hat weave patterns here.
2. The Panama hat is made from toquilla straw
Toquilla straw comes from the leaves of the toquilla palm, whose scientific name is “carludovica palmata”. The plant is grown on the Ecuadorian coast, mainly in the province of Manabí. Farmers cultivate the toquillales and harvest the stems before separating the fiber from the outer skin. This is boiled to remove chlorophyll and dried for bleaching. Using this fiber, weavers produce the pattern, the crown and the brim of the hat and complete the process by washing, bleaching, oven treatment, ironing and pressing. Weaving a hat can take from one day to eight months, depending on its quality and finesse.
3. Not all Panama hats are equal
Though no industry-wide grading systems and standards exists for Panama hats, everyone can agree that quality can greatly vary among hats and sellers. Buyer beware… One seller’s grade 10, for example, can vary greatly from another seller’s grade 10.
A Panama hat’s quality is determined by a variety of factors, most notably the straw and the weave.
- The Straw: In general terms, the finer, the more identical, and the more evenly colored the straw, the better the quality of the hat.
- The Weave: The denser the weave and the more even they are, the better the quality of the hat.
Oftentimes, hats are categorized as “Montecristi fino” or “Montecristi superfino” and so on. Some manufacturers and retailers supply numbered grades, such as 1-20, but, as previously mentioned, these aren’t universally recognized terms.
The best way to measure the fineness of a woven hat is to count the rows of weave per inch (or 2.5 centimeters), first horizontally then vertically. Read more about Panama hat grades here.
The finest Panama hats have over 2,000-4,000 weaves per square inch, taking the hat maker between four and eight months to produce. Taking into consideration the time and skill involved, these hats will not come cheap.
4. Panama hats come in a variety of styles
A Panama hat’s style is determined by two primary characteristics: the shape and size of the brim and the crown.
The most common Panama hat styles are:
Fedora Panama hat
The Fedora style rose to fame during the 1940s, being the hat of choice in a variety of classic films, including Casablanca and Key Largo. It remains the most popular style today, and includes a variety of variations.
Optimo Panama hat
The Optimo is the classic Panama hat style, called the Natural in Ecuador. The Optimo gained popularity among British travelers and expats while traveling the tropics of countries like India, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Even today, the Optimo style is more popular in the UK than in the US. Like the Fedora, the Optimo comes in a variety of styles.
Monte Carlo Panama hat
The original Planter style, as immortalized by Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind. Charlton Heston wore a very wide brim version in his portrayal of a South American plantation owner in Naked Jungle.
Nowadays, the most common interpretation of this style is usually called a “Gambler”. Since most of them are shaped on a hat press, the outer edge of the brim turns up a bit.
5. The finest Panama hat ever woven has an estimated value of $100,000
In 2008, B. Brent Black commissioned the finest Montecristi hat ever woven, also known as “The Hat”. It took master weaver Simon Espinal, who lives in the village of Pile in the Montecristi Canton of Ecuador, five months to weave, and four more weeks for five more artisans to do their parts to finish it.