I don’t have to list the merits of a timeless panama hat and the effortless cool it exudes. The stylish and sought-after headwear was named for a country that had nothing to do with its creation; became a worldwide sensation in 1880s; and remains a classic dress piece today. Here is how to wear a panama hat with good style and good manners.
History and tradition
Panama hats originated in the small, South American country of Ecuador centuries ago. 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-blocked 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.”
How is a panama hat made?
The panama hat-making process is long and involved, so I’ll keep this to a brief overview. Firstly, toquilla palm (Carludovica Palmata) is harvested for collogos, a fibrous material found in new leaf shoots. Harvesters learn to choose the right shoots at perfect ripeness and only take what is necessary so that the plants survive. The collogos is then opened to reveal the supple fibres inside called tallos. These are boiled and rapidly dried to turn them into a straw that is a pale yellow hue, some of which are bleached and others left natural depending on the desired colour of the hat.
A specialist weaver takes over, selecting the best tallos and cutting them to a manageable length. They begin forming a small, flat circle, known as a “plantilla” translating to “template” in English, which will become the top of the hat. When the plantilla is complete, the hat is placed over a special stand while the sides of the crown and brim are woven. The stand keeps the hat shape, and the weaver bends almost double over the top to get a good view of their weave. This process can be 3-months long depending on factors such as the weaver’s skill, hat size and fineness of the weave.
For high-quality hats, an artisan takes the headwear still with raw sprays of straw around the brim and back-weaves the edges to give them a clean finish. Yet another skilled specialist, tightens that back-weave. If a hat exhibits stitching or glue around the edges, this indicates poorer quality. The hat is then beaten with a mallet to soften the straw, this also has the byproduct of lightening the colour. The process continues with trimming or shaving off any loose straw ends.
The trimmed, back-woven and beaten hats are a bit misshapen but that doesn’t take long to fix. La planchadora/le planchador uses a hat form similar to that used during weaving, only placed on a flat surface, and irons the hat’s crown and brim to remove any wrinkles and make it crisp. Then a blocker will take the ironed hat and use traditional steaming methods to form the hats into different shapes.
At this point all toquilla straw hats look roughly the same. Blocking is the process of steaming, stretching and forming a hat into its final style. This is when a creases, pinches and crowns are sculpted to create the desired lines. Finally, any decorative hatbands or embellishments and an inner sweatband are added.
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.
Modern etiquette – how to wear a panama hat without offending
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:
How to wear a panama hat – styling tips
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.
Selecting a panama hat that’s right for you is highly personal as it will depend on your face shape and proportion. A general rule is larger brims will suit a larger person or rounder face, while a smaller brim is best for smaller statured folk and finer features. You may need to try on a few to find the one that flatters you most.
Being a straw hat, the panama is usually only worn in summer (unless you are lucky enough to reside in the tropics), so swap it out for a felt fedora when the weather gets cool. While warmth prevails, pair it with jeans and a tee, all the way through to a maxi dress or a suit – the world is your oyster with this timeless accessory. Now, let’s get inspired by how these stylish ladies and suave gents wear their panama hats.
Where to shop online for a panama hat
If you can’t make it to Ecuador to pick up a panama hat, here are a few places you might shop online. Please note that I purchased my Homero Ortego in person in Ecuador. I have not purchased from any of these retailers myself online, so please do your due diligence and check reviews before purchasing.
Pachacuti – UK importer
Artesano – USA importer
Homero Ortega – ships from Ecuador
Montecristi Panama Hats – Ecuadorian family-owned business in USA
Ultrafino – USA importer
How do you wear your panama hat? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Peace, love and inspiring travels,