As summer grows nearer and days become warmer, it’s only natural to start daydreaming of sunny days, pool parties, and beachside barbecues. You can’t wait to put away your winter attire and break out your summer wear.
Unable to contain your anticipation, you decide to have a pre-summer fashion show (in front of the mirror) to ensure you're ready. But as you pull on your chinos, throw on your button-down, slip into your sandals, and push on your shades, you realize something is lacking.
You still need that little something that will make you irresistible when you walk down the boardwalk.
You need a hat! But not just any old hat…
Forget about your baseball cap and that visor you’ve had since high school. You need a hat that will add a spark of elegance to your persona.
You need… A Panama hat.
Designed to protect you from the sun’s rays, Panamas are lightweight straw hats that elevate your style and give you the flavor you’ve been missing.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at what a Panama hat is, dive into its history, and entice you to add one to your summer closest.
What’s a Panama hat?
A Panama hat - also called a jipijapa hat, Ecuadorian hat, or toquilla straw hat - is made from the leaves of the toquilla palm. Unlike its namesake, Panama hats do not come from the country it’s named after. They’re produced in Ecuador, where the toquilla plant is cultivated abundantly.
While the modern design you see today on beachsides around the world was created about a century ago, the tradition of making hats from toquilla palm has been around much longer. Indeed, we have evidence that the Incas used toquilla palm to make headwear to protect themselves from the sun.
Why is it called a Panama hat?
Panama hats are about as Panamanian as French fries are French (that honor belongs to Belgium). Panamas were created and continue to be made in Ecuador. While toquilla hats were common throughout Central and South America long ago, they didn't become popular worldwide until the early 1900s.
It was when the US government took over the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 that the Panamas reached their peak popularity. But what does that have anything to do with hats?
You see, thousands of American workers were sent to Panama to work on the Canal. You can imagine how tough it was to work long shifts under the Panamanian sun.
So, the Americans imitated the locals and worked while wearing straw hats made from the toquilla palm imported from Ecuador. Lightweight, pliable, and highly durable, toquilla hats were the perfect sun protector for the workers.
When American workers came back on US soil, can you guess what they took back with them? You guessed it. They brought home the hats, and when friends and family asked what they called these things, what do you think they said?
That’s how the entirely Ecuadorian-made toquilla hat became known as the Panama hat.
How are Panama hats made?
Making Panama hats is a long, slow process. Making a single hat can take months or even a year, depending on the quality and tightness of the weaves. At a glance, the process looks like this:
- Selecting and harvesting the perfect toquillas
- Separating the fibers from the leaves
- Boiling the fibers to remove chlorophyll
- Bleaching the fibers with sulfur and heat
- Drying the fibers
- Hand-splitting the fibers to obtain the finest threads
Once these steps have been followed, the weavers use their skilled hands to shape what will become Panama hats. The process is extremely tedious and demands concentration, skill, and experience.
While most weavers work at dusk and dawn, legends say that the very best weavers only work under moonlight…
What separates a real Panama hat and a cheap knock-off?
The authentic Panama hat is made in Ecuador. That’s because the toquilla plant became a major crop in Ecuador when the commercial demand skyrocketed at the beginning of the 20th century.
Most Panamas are produced in Ecuador’s southern highlands in Cuenca. It’s considered the Panama hat capital. And even though Cuenca cranks out tons of Panama hats daily, the quality you’ll find from a Cuenca factory far exceeds anything you’ll find in other countries.
But if you’re looking for a mythical Panama hat weaved under the moonlight, you’ll have to get it from a small-town producer. For example, the town of Montecristi (located in the northwest of the country) is famous for producing some of the finest Panama hats in the world. A montecristi superfino can be sold for thousands of dollars.
Why are Panama hats so expensive?
While mass production has made Panamas more affordable and easy to obtain, some can be extremely pricey. It all depends on how the hat was made and who made it. Indeed, the tighter the weave, the better the hat is.
When a Panama hat is well made, it’s supple and light but incredibly rugged. That type of hat is something you’ll have for years to come. It soaks up the sun’s rays, keeps its beautiful color, and retains the shape that the weaver initially gave it for a long time.
Types of Panama hats
Panama hats can be styled in countless shapes. Even if you want a top hat, I’m sure someone will make it for you. Indeed, the toquilla palm is highly pliable and can be shaped into virtually anything.
The weaver, or hatter, has complete freedom as to what they want to do with a hat’s brim and crown, but Panama hats are mostly styled into:
When should you wear a Panama hat?
While they were intended to be used during hot and sunny days, you can wear a Panama hat anytime. Well, almost anytime - you may look a wee bit strange wearing one in the middle of winter on a snowy day.
Nonetheless, you can wear a Panama hat with almost any attire. Whether you’re wearing a swimsuit, jeans and a t-shirt, or a three-piece suit, the right Panama hat will, no doubt, complement your outfit.
Where can you buy a Panama hat?
No, you don’t have to fly to Ecuador to get yourself a beautiful Panama hat. Hit your local hat store or browse the internet, where you’ll find a massive selection of Panama hats that fit your budget.
Panama hats are much more than straw hats. They carry the history and culture of Ecuador and its interaction with the world. Handmade and unique, traditional Panama hats are made by artists that possess knowledge passed down from generations. Weaving with such artistry, they pour their passion into each hat to essentially create masterpieces.
So, next time you spot a Panama, think about where the hat came from and if it is an original Panama hat. Who knows? It may even be one of the legendary Panamas made under the light of the moon.