The History of the Straw Hat
From the beach to the boardwalk, straw hats evoke images of carefree summer days and endless outdoor adventures. Often regarded as a classic accessory that pairs well with just about any warm-weather outfit, straw hats are decidedly modern. Yet they actually have a surprisingly long history that dates back to the Middle Ages —and some believe even earlier.
For an item that’s at once contemporary yet historic, stylish yet practical, it’s easy to wonder: What's the real story behind the ubiquitous hat? And how did it become such an integral part of summer fashion today? Here, we take a closer look at the iconic straw hat.
What Is a Straw Hat?
True to its name, a straw hat is typically made from natural straw or straw-like materials, such as palm, raffia, seagrass, and other plant and synthetic fibers. These hats are designed to keep your head cool while simultaneously providing shade and protection from the sun’s UV rays. And while the anatomy of a straw hat has remained largely consistent across generations and fashions, you’re likely to find them in a few specific styles today—namely, wide-brimmed sun hats, fedoras, boaters, and cowboy hats.
For centuries, straw hats have been a symbol of summer style, thanks to their lightweight materials and classic designs that pair well with everything from beachwear to casual attire and even to smart outfits for dressier occasions. In fact, no matter the reason or the season, straw hats have become a staple accessory for anyone looking to stay cool, shaded and fashionable.
What's the Origin of a Straw Hat?
Some historians have traced the origins of the straw hat to ancient times, when the Greeks and Romans wore caps made of both straw and cloth fabrics to protect their heads from the sun. Later examples of straw hats also began to appear in famed works of art throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. However, it wasn't until the 17th century that the straw hat became a popular accessory throughout Europe, primarily among those toiling in the fields under the hot midday sun. By the 19th century, straw hats had become a common workwear item, worn by many farmers and laborers to protect themselves from the sun.
In particular, the Panama straw hat—typically made from the leaves of the toquilla palm (and first hailing from Ecuador rather than Panama, despite the name)—gained widespread popularity in the early 20th century, when it was popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt, who wore one during his visit to the Panama Canal construction site in 1906. Seemingly overnight, the Panama hat transcended its modest farming origins and became a symbol of sophistication and luxury, worn by Hollywood stars and high society even to this day.
Why Are Straw Hats So Popular?
Let us count the ways! Firstly, straw hats are a stylish and versatile accessory that can be worn with a variety of outfits. Secondly, they are lightweight and breathable, making them ideally suited for hot, humid and even sticky summer weather. And importantly, straw hats are available in a wide variety of styles and materials, from wide-brimmed sun hats to classic fedoras, so there's truly a straw hat—or several—perfect for every head.
What Are the Most Common Straw Types?
As we’ve shared previously on our blog, there are numerous types of straw hats, and there are also many kinds of straw materials used to make the hats all around the world—along with straw bags, accessories and more. Some of the most common materials include:
- Raffia: Natural fiber made from the leaves of the raffia palm, often used to make beach hats.
- Toquilla straw: Premium material used to make the famous Panama hat.
- Mexico palm: Indigenous to Mexico, and known for its overall strength and flexibility.
- Rush straw: Hailing from China but known around the world for its durability.
- Toyo straw: Lightweight and flexible, yet highly dense, making it ideal for sun protection.
- Paper braid straw: Also known as paper straw or woven paper, a synthetic option for lightweight hats.
- Seagrass: A durable, flexible straw used to make a variety of hat styles.
- Wheat straw: A popular material for cowboy hats and other Western-style hats.
Which Straw Hat Is Right For Me?
When looking for the best straw hat, it's important to consider your personal style and the occasion for which you plan to wear it. If you're looking for a casual, beachy vibe, a wide-brimmed straw hat made from raffia is an excellent option that combines style with function. If you're after a more classic look to wear to occasions beyond the beach, a fedora or traditional Panama hat made from toquilla palm will add sophistication to your outfit.
When it comes to picking the perfect straw hat, here are a few questions to ask yourself to help narrow down the many options. From there, it’s really up to what you like the most!
- Performance: Are you in need of a tightly woven material or a cover that can protect against the sun’s rays on even the hottest summer days? Or are you in the market for more of a stylish option for lazy Sunday afternoons around town?
- Style: Do you prefer the aesthetics of a light colored or naturally colored straw, or something with a bit more color and flair, such as a Toyo or paper straw hat?
The fact is, when it comes to straw hats, it all comes down to your personal preferences for style, fit, utility, and overall investment. Our Ultimate Straw Hat Breakdown is a great resource for selecting just the right straw material for your next hat.