A short history of Panama hats and what goes into making one

I’ve realised obsession has always been a problem for me. I walked into a cool-looking hat shop one time on King Street in Newtown thinking a look couldn’t hurt. As I walked in the store, a small man ambushed me out of nowhere and immediately struck a pose that can only be respectfully described as some sort of taunt move in crane style kung fu. Raising his head a little with the thickest Ecuadorian accent he said, “Welcome… to Caramba!” rolling the “r” long enough for one guy to walk out the door. But not me. I knew from that moment, broke as I was, I wasn’t walking back out into the sun without a new hat. And that was the start of a real problem.

Panama Hat David Nguyen The Hounds 1
If I put some cork strings onto the brim, I’ll become the ultimate swagman

I love all types of hats, but the history of the Panama has, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating histories. The city of origin, Panama City garnered a large amount of visitors as an intercontinental port for sea vessels during the 19th century. With the increase in Panamanian foot traffic following the Californian Gold Rush of 1849, Ecuadorians armed with their light, sun-blocking, breathable hats, made their way up to Panama selling to travellers who wanted useful souvenirs from their visits through the continental divide. Consequently, when asked about where might one be able to attain such a hat, they answered “Panama” and the name stuck. This remains still the largest upset in Ecuadorian history.

Yet the role of the Panama hat is pivotal in not only Ecuadorian history, but North American as well. The image of Theodore Roosevelt donning a classic, wide brimmed, black banded Panama fedora, on the Panama Canal Project, forever established this great hat as an icon of classic summer style, inspiring a whole line of presidents and even movie stars to follow suit – from Clark Gable’s immortalisation of the Monte Carlo in Gone With The Wind all the way to Sean Connery in his Bond films. So in light of the furore caused by the hat, you probably want to ask “Why is the Panama a great hat?”. Well a better question would be, “What does it take to make a great Panama?”. And the answer is an Ecuadorian village during the cool seasons and a helluva lot of time.

At the risk of sounding like a salesman, Panama hats are completely natural, made from Toquilla palm, which must be stalked, treated, and then stripped down to the width of the actual fibres called tallo you see on the hat when it’s finished. Extremely meticulous handiwork is required from weavers, not to mention undying concentration in order to produce the fine weaves. Not only that, the search for the perfect virgin palm leaves from the centre of the plant known as cogollo is in itself a trek.

Panama Hat David Nguyen The Hounds 2
(An Ecuadorian) weaves for days.

Experts from Monticristi know that they must choose leaves that are similar in colour, drying them under the shade and then using the smoke from burning sulphur collected from the nearby volcano to bleach the straw overnight to preserve the perfect pale cream tone. The tallos are taken by weavers and laid on top of another, slowly under and over each other to create the armado on the top of the hat which eventually grows into a plantilla approximately the size of a large coin.

Through developing the brim from the crown and finishing off the edge by weaving it back into the hat, the process rolls on in steady anticipation of the final result. The best weavers will create a hat that feels like linen, light as ever, but pliable enough to roll out and sturdy enough to come back into shape, like Optimus Prime.

But the hat is far from complete. Cortadors will remove excess straw to be washed and bleached. The Apelador gets a hold of the hat to “break in” the straw with an oversized wooden log, which is then shaven down, wounded and slightly tattered, by the familiar hands of the Cortador. The Planchador’s irons the hat with generous servings of natural sulphur will keep it from losing its colour. Finally, the hat, still looking like a big straw plate, is blocked using wooden lasts and steam, or in some cases, completely by hand.

Panama Hat David Nguyen The Hounds 3
HRNGHHH!!!

But the nonchalant ease of the Panama as well as its extreme versatility has triggered a proliferation of cheap reproductions. These new age paper hats cost next to nothing to make whereas, depending on the tightness of the weave, a true Ecuadorian product can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to complete, handled by traditional experts who have been doing the hat shindig all their lives. It’s understandable when considering these aspects – and god almightly, the shipping costs – why hats like these may seem to cost a small fortune (or a small car). I think of it more as an investment in quality and provenance but then again, my partner (and everyone else) never cease to remind me how blasé my spending habits are. I got ninety-nine problems but getting burnt ain’t one.

Panama Hat David Nguyen The Hounds 4
The gold chain lets passerbys know they’re dealing with a straight up gangster.

David wears:

Panama Hat — Caramba

Navy Suit — M.J. Bale

Toffee Rugby Polo — Ralph Lauren

Pocketsquare — Kent Wang

Fringed Oxblood Slippers — Bally