The list of famous figures who have donned a Panama hat is a lengthy one, with Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and even Napoleon III having worn Panamas. Movie stars, too, are often seen wearing a Panama hat, with the likes of Paul Newman and Charlton Heston having sported this elegant headwear on screen.
So just what is the story behind this icon, and, more importantly, where can you find the most authentic and best quality Panama?
You would be forgiven for thinking that the Panama hat originated in, well, Panama, but in fact the renowned garment hails from the Andean country of Ecuador. At the height of hat production in the mid 1800’s, the name was coined as a clever marketing ploy; in order to increase the popularity of the hat it was named after Panama, which at that time (and indeed to this day) was a busy trading post for those crossing the Panama isthmus between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific ocean – hugely important for bolstering trade with big cities on the east coast of the USA.
It is believed that variations of the Panama have been worn for as much as 4,000 years. It can sometimes takes craftsmen months to make the hat, which is produced by skillfully weaving together a strong type of palm straw that is native to Ecuador. The quality is sometimes so excellent that it can appear that the hats are made of fine linen.
The Panama was in popular use by the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire (which encompassed modern day Ecuador). The conquistadors liked the look of the hat and its popularity soon took off. They noticed a resemblance between the hat and a Spanish hat called the toque and began to call the hats Toquillas, and the straw from which the hats were weaved they named paja toquilla.
Today there are many styles of Panama hat, which vary in colour, shape and style. The most traditional and common type is light beige with a thick black band above a broad rim, though there are also versions that are darker shades of brown and with thinner rims.
When in Ecuador you will never be short of chances to buy yourself a Panama hat. A good place to buy a Panama is on La Ronda street in the capital city Quito where many hat makers ply their trade. A great number of hats are also produced in the southern city of Cuenca.
The most authentic and best quality hats, however, can be found in the town of Montecristi, where there is a strong tradition of Panama production. You can find Panama hats in the market here for as little as five dollars. Montecristi lies about 5 miles south of the coastal town of Manta and can be reached on the bus between Manta and the port of Guayaquil.
Generally speaking, if you buy a Panama hat from any vendor, make sure that it was crafted in Montecristi and you can be more confident that it will be of the best quality.