The Panama hat – I’m sure you hardly need convincing of the merits of this timeless fashion accessory. The stylish and sought-after headwear was named for a country that had nothing to do with its creation; became a worldwide sensation in 1880’s; and remains a classic dress piece today. Here is how to wear a Panama hat with style and good manners.
History and tradition
The small South American country of Ecuador is where the artisan-made toquilla straw hats began their centuries of history. Toquilla is a type of palm endemic to Ecuador’s Pacific coast and produces a fine straw. Toquilla straw hats or “sombreros de paja toquilla” in Spanish, can be traced back to the time of the Incan empire. However, the Incan-era shape was very different to what we know as a Panama hat in the last century. It is thought that the 16th century arrival of the Spanish, who demanded a more European look, led to the iconic style of today.
Genuine Panama hats are entirely handmade by craftspeople who have spent many years honing their millinery skills. Artisans hand-split Toquilla straw into fine strands and weave them tightly to create a linen-like texture. Each hat is hand-block and shaped, taking up to multiple months to complete. The tighter and more even the weave, the better quality hat and therefore the higher the price. The hand craftsmanship of a quality Panama hat is so revered that in 2012 UNESCO added it to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
What’s in a name?
The misleading reference to the country of Panama in the hat’s name can be attributed to a number of historical misunderstandings and cannot be traced to a single source. One of the most common stories is that of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt being photographed wearing a Toquilla straw hat when visiting the Panama Canal in 1906. The highly-published photo seen by many in America and around the world, gave way to the misnomer that his hat had been produced in Panama.
Sombreros de paja toquilla is the accepted generic name for a Panama Hat among its traditional Ecuadorean makers and wearers. The hat has received other location based nicknames based on towns that have a reputation for producing very fine hats. These include Monticristi and Jipijapa, so to refer to a hat by either of these names would not be incorrect and certainly more accurate than “Panama hat.”
Panama vs. Fedora vs. Trilby
Panama, Fedora and Trilby – these names are often used interchangeably, however, there are distinct differences between these three hat styles. As mentioned above, a genuine Panama hat is made of Toquilla straw. Its shape may vary slightly, but the material must be straw. A Fedora has a very similar shape to a Panama hat but is made of felt, usually wool. A Trilby, on the other hand, has a very narrow brim, which is often upturned at the back. A Trilby has difficult proportions to pull off – gents, see this article on Good Men Project.
How to wear a Panama hat
Get inspired by these stylish ladies and suave gents in their sombreros de paja toquilla.
General hat etiquette has traditionally varied between men and women because of the different styles of hats they wore. The growing popularity of traditional men’s styles that are now also worn by women, like the Panama Hat, has blurred the dividing line. Therefore, the etiquette of wearing a Panama hat, applies to both sexes. There are a lot of opinions on modern hat-wearing etiquette, so I have tried to narrow it down to some simple, moderate rules of thumb:
- Ladies and gentlemen should remove their Panama hat in homes, offices, places of worship and in dining establishments where there is table service.
- It is ideal to remove your hat anywhere it may block someone’s view e.g. cinema or theatre.
- In some countries it is appropriate to remove your hat during the national anthem.
- Generally, if you’re unsure, it’s better to remove your hat as an accepted mark of respect. Leaving your hat on may be perceived as disrespectful and you don’t want to offend your host.
If you’re planning to buy a Panama hat on your travels, here are some excellent resources for information on determining quality and price:
A sombrero de paja toquilla is an easy way to upgrade almost any outfit. The stylish hats are perfect for many occasions from horse races and summer picnics to Sunday brunch or a day at the beach. Having a bad hair day? Pop on a Panama hat and you’ll feel a million bucks.
Peace, love and hats,