The History of the Panama Hat

Did you know that the Panama Hat originated in Ecuador? Or that its roots have been traced back to as early as the 1800s? Long before this stylish summer staple was gracing the heads of celebrities and prominent public features, it was aiding American troops, helping with the construction of the Panama Canal, and helping boost the Ecuadorian economy. Want to know more? Read on for a brief history of the often imitated, never replicated Panama Hat.

Early Days
Despite their name, Panama hats trace their origins back to Ecuador and the genuine ones continue to be made there to this day. Back in the 1800s, prospectors would scoop up these hats in Panama en route to California for the gold rush but it wasn’t until the Spanish American War that the hats reached peak popularity when the U.S. government purchased 50,000 of them for their troops. Can you imagine how stylish they must have looked? So if they originated and are made in Ecuador, why are they called Panama hats? Thanks to their popularity in Panama, people began associating the hat with the country and the rest is, as they say, history.

Despite their simple design, there’s a lot of work that goes into the manufacturing of a Panama hat. In order to make the real deal, you need toquilla, a tall, palm-type plant that produces straw that’s conducive to weaving. Once the toquilla has been harvested (preferably at the point in the lunar cycle when it is drier, thus allowing it to be easily manipulated), craftsmen weave the straw into the lightweight toppers that we know and love. The art of weaving Panama hats is so respected that in 2012, it was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Typically, the higher quality Panama hats boast the most weave per square inch. A grading system exists by which to judge the quality of the hat’s weave with only the rare few able to attain the covetable title of Montecristis. These days, there remain only a handful of weavers able to create Montecristis hats. As a result, the wares produced by these artists are a very hot commodity.

Popularity and Recognition
In 1906, mainstream America caught on to the Panama trend after a photograph of President Roosevelt was published, depicting him surveying the construction of the Panama Canal wearing one of the eponymous chapeaus. Since then, scores of high-profile celebrities and public figure have donned the hat, making its presence constant throughout the decades. In 1985, the Conrad Foundation chose the Panama to be part of the “100 best designs ever” collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Their fascinating history and exquisite craftsmanship make Panama Hats a must have for every summer wardrobe. Pick one up  and not only will you look amazing, you’ll be wearing a piece that bears important historical and cultural significance. How many hats can offer you that?