The Surprising Origins of the Panama Hat
This article is part of Latin Post's On the Road: Austin series. Follow our adventures at #LPOTR.
It's been known as the Panama hat, the Monticristi and the Sombrero de paja toquilla — the fashionable, sophisticated, yet laid-back headwear has been a signature piece for many people around the globe and in Hollywood — from Latina A-listers, Jessica Alba and Cameron Diaz to actor and director Brad Pitt.
Versions of the Panama hat, which was most popular before the 1960s, have been making a comeback. The evolved, modern-day fashion accessory has Latin roots woven into its history, but surprisingly, the Panama hat originates not in Panama, but Ecuador.
Latin Post spoke with the professional haberdashers at Austin's Hatbox: A Modern Haberdashery about the history behind the popular hat.
"The Panama hat is known and named for its point of export, rather than its point of origin. All genuine Panama hats are hand-woven in Ecuador using toquilla straw. They can be traced back to the 16th century where the Incas were the first to weave hats using the the paja toquilla," said the Hatbox's Ryder Turner.
In 1526, when Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors arrived in Ecuador, many of the inhabitants of the coastal areas had headwear made of woven straw.
"In Ecuador they are called sombreros de paja toquilla, or 'hats of toquilla straw,'" Turner said. "The hat bodies are meticulously hand-woven, refined, edged, smoothed and bleached by Ecuadorian artisans in situ before travelling to hatters all over the world who block and trim them into familiar styles."
They predominantly come from two main cities in Ecuador: Montecristi, a coastal city in Manabi, and Cuenca, a city in the Andes Mountains.
"It has been said that "better hats come from Montecristi but more hats come from Cuenca. While the topic of Panama hat quality is heavily disputed, it has become widely believed that the true test of quality lies in the number of weaves per square inch," according to Hatbox. "Fewer than 100 is considered to be of lower quality while some of the finest Panama hats can have 1600-2500 weaves per square inch, resembling woven linen."
According to GQ, the naming of the Panama hat was an important branding tactic. "By the mid-1800s a more practical, wide-brimmed hat was created. The lightweight lids built up quite a reputation, and for a few intrepid businessmen, those natural colored hats were looking mighty green. Moving the hats from Ecuador, through Panama, out into the rest of the world became quite the lucrative business, save for one problem: Ecuadorian hats just didn't have a recognizable ring to the rest of the world. Panama, meanwhile... well, most Americans could at least pretend they knew where it was. So in a branding move that would make any advertising executive proud, the 'Panama Hat' was born."
And now, over 150 years later, it's again becoming popular with the powerful. "We have a lot of musicians in, a lot of actors and a lot of very high-powered businessmen, Turner of the Hatbox told Latin Post in an earlier interview. "In my time here, I have seen a lot of people that most people never get to meet in their entire lives. The culture behind hats was slowly dying out, but there is actually is a bit of a revival now — and we're a part of that."
Other Hollywood A-listers who have an interest in re-vintaged hats have flocked to downtown Austin's Hatbox, including lead singer of the Rolling Stone's Mick Jagger, singer Willie Nelson, actress Susan Sarandon, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and WWE wrestler Mark William Calaway, as known as "The Undertaker," as well as Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gustavo "Gus" Fring in AMC's "Breaking Bad."
Subscribe to Latin Post!
Sign up for our free newsletter for the Latest coverage!