Today, May 15, is Straw Hat Day. What–it’s not marked on your calendar? It ought to be.
Historically, men have worn hats. Hats are practical, protecting our heads from the elements. Plus, hats look good. Our modern society only tolerates baseball caps or the occasional bucket hat. Granted, there has been a bit of a revival of hipster short brimmed monstrosities that one can pick up at Target, but the less said of those the better.
The Panama is the ne plus ultra of straw hats. Panama hats are so-called not because they are made in Panama but rather because Panama became an export distribution point for them. True Panama hats are handwoven in Ecuador from fibers of the toquilla plant. At their finest, the weaves are linen-like and can pass rolled through a wedding ring. However, such a hat takes many months to make and will cost thousands of dollars.
Ecuadorian Panama hats have been woven for hundreds of years. When Europeans came to the Americas they were soon exported all over the world. Panama hats were said to be worn by Napoleon. Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin both wore them, as did Winston Churchill, and many more. Alas, today there are fewer and fewer weavers, particularly among the most skilled. But the tradition does live on, and we ought to support it.
The city most identified with Panama hats was Montecristi as it was one of the prime centers of weavers. The name Montecristi has become synonymous with Panama hats, although the village of Pile is now the actual home of the highest quality weaving. Cuenca is also a Panama hat center, but the weave is different, and the weaving not as fine. Cuenca hats can be quite solid, however.
The traditional shape of the Panama hat is called an optimo, recognizable for the raised crease on the crown. This originally developed from the hats being folded and rolled. Now they are deliberately shaped that way, although many are still sold rolled in a tube (it’s not particularly good for the hat, however).
Other crown shapes, or blocks, that emulated felt hat shapes became common as well. So while the optimo shape is the classic it is no longer the most popular. Many prefer a fedora shape. Shaping high quality Montecristis requires great skill, and is itself an art.
As mentioned above, you can spend an almost unlimited amount on a high grade Panama. However, hats are available in various grades beginning with virtually disposable junk hats. Less expensive, less finely woven Panamas can look quite presentable if blocked well, and actually will be cooler than the tighter fine weaves that hold in heat. When choosing a hat opt for natural rather than bleached fibers, and look for regular, even weaving.
Wear your Panama with a suit or sportcoat, of course, but often summer heat calls for less formal clothes. They look fine dressed down with a polo shirt or linen button up. Whatever you’re wearing, a Panama hat will make you look better.
I have cheaper Panamas that I use for knocking about. I even had a vintage Panama from ebay that became a mowing hat until it finally gave up the ghost. I’ve also purchased some nicer Panamas that were blocked by the able hands of master hatter Art Fawcett. They would never be confused for ultra fino grade, but the weave is even and the blocking is excellent. The price was reasonable.
My cheaper Panamas came from Panama Bob as did my first nicer Panama. He sources directly from the weavers himself, and in my experience will deal honestly with you. Some have found his personality a bit prickly, but I had no real problems, and no complaints about my hats. I have read good things about Panama Hats Direct as well (warning: an auto-message will begin playing at the link), but have no personal experience with them. The most (in)famous seller of high-end Panamas is Brent Black. His site is fun to look at and educational.
Today’s the official day to pull your straw hats out of the closet. And if you haven’t before, consider a handwoven Panama.
If you’re interested in the Panama hat process take a look at this YouTube video. It’s about twenty minutes long, but gives a nice overview of the process.