The image of a Panama hat is indisputably recognized around the world. It is one of the few things that transcends a style or a trend, which can be seen on runways as well as on farmers, it is a symbol of both class and functionality and ubiquitous in all romantic narratives of travel and exploration. The hat is more than apparel; it tells the story of centuries of adventure, politics, art, elegance and labour.
The origins of the hat can be traced back to 4,000 BC in the sculptures found off of the Ecuadorian coast but it wasn’t until the 18th century that the hats began to make their way across the Pacific with the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil exporting goods to Panama which was quickly becoming the gateway of trade with Europe and North America.
Though the hats eventually had extreme success in the top haute couture fashion houses of Paris, the Spanish conquistadors were not as enthusiastic as they believed that the natives were wearing “vampire skin” on their heads. A century later, the first artisanal hats began making an appearance in the coastal provinces of Guayas and Manabi, especially due to the craftsmanship of Francisco Delgado, a master weaver which helped propel the popularity of the hat into the 18th century.
The Spanish conquistadors are also responsible for one of the panama hats’ many names: the toquilla, which was named after the toque, the hats worn by Spaniards during the conquest. The straw used to make panama hats was subsequently called toquilla. It would then be given its scientific name Carludovicapalmatein the 18th century after King Charles IV and his wife Luisa by the royal botanists sent from Spain to catalogue the plants and flowers of the region.
Another name for the hat was the Jipijapa after the city of Manabi which is said to be the first producers of the hat and still the area which grows most of the toquilla straw from which the hats are made. The Montecristi bears its name from town the town that made it famous. To this day, it is known for excellence in weaving and is associated with only the finest of the panama hats-the fine weave of the montecristipanama hat once used as a measurement against silk.
Parallel with the flourishing of cacao, panama hats began to make their rise in the Ecuadorian economy as the country moved in the direction of independence and the province of Manabi was at the heart of enterprise. The landowners or latifundistas along with the plantation workers needed shade from the heat and as cacao production increased the artisan weavers became more organised and diversified.
We can thank the Spanish entrepreneur Manuel Alfaro for launching the celebrated hat into a greater global market. After moving to Montecristi, he quickly dedicated himself to rapidly increasing production and exporting the hat which soon would be accompanying many a gold rush prospector on their way to California. In 1850 many images with men wearing while sifting through rocks in the sun-putting panama hats on the map in the United States and around the world.
By mid-19th century, the popularity of the panama hat was booming in neighbouring South American countries and especially Europe and the United States, facilitated by its appearance at the 1855 Paris World’s Fair. A Frenchman named Philippe Raimondi who was living in Ecuador unveiled the hat in Paris and it was an immediate success, especially after it was given to Napoleon III. It was then that the name of the hat took on the name of “panama” to the eternal chagrin of Ecuadorians-the confusion coming from it being exported to Europe from Panama. Instead of promoting the country and artisans responsible for its high demand, Panama irrevocably and universally got the credit for the hat.
As Panama began the great undertaking of building the canal, many photos of men working on the project being shaded from the heat of the sun by the woven hats which made their way to the front pages of newspapers around the world. Soon other countries would follow suit in panama hat production.
Eloy Alfaro, son of Manuel Alfaro and born in Montecristi,moved to Panama in his 20’s and soon became a huge propellant of the panama hat industry. Later he became President of the Republic and the hats became an undisputable symbol of the revolution. One of the nations that was caught in the whirlwind of independence was Cuba, known for its chic style and love for celebrations and of course, the panama hat was centre stage.
While Ecuador expanded with a railway passing through the Andes, cacao production was booming withGuayaquil blossoming from development in trade and plantations. The hot climate was less than desirable and as the cacaolatifundistas became ever-the-more wealthy, they took themselves and their panama hats to Europe, mostly Paris where they could live the heyday of the belle epoque. Just as they travelled to a far off land, so did counts of other aristocrats living the opulence of the time by taking luxury voyages to distant destinations. And, of course, many of the upper crust took with them an essential for style and relief from the sun: the panama hat.
As haute couture was on the rise with the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth at the forefront, the top hat was replaced by the bowler in the winter and the boater hat in the summer which was soon substituted by the panama. Prominent heirs, writers, and kings were seen wearing the montecristihat to achieve supreme elegance and style for the world to see. The hat made headlines with the image President Theodore Roosevelt inspecting the progress of the Panama Canal as fashion magazines began to distinguish the difference between style, quality and provenance. Around the world, panama hat production was burgeoning. In the United States, Stetson began manufacturing its own styles and Cuba also became a key player in panama hat production.
In 1944 the hat was Ecuador’s main export also due to cacao production having been destroyed by a calamitous fungus. The glamour of Hollywood was in the spotlight and so was the panama hat worn by Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart and seen on the big screen in countless films. Different forms of the hat continued to blossom such as the borsalino, the stetson and the colonial although the most stylish continued to be the classicmontecristi with high quality straw worn by powerful politicians, gangsters and icons of style.
In the 60’s the hat saw a decline in popularity as fashion changed to promote a more hatless stile led by none other than J.F. Kennedy. The political divide was represented in apparel, Nikita Khrushchev wearing his panama on his visit to Cuba which would soon be cut off from trade with most of the world. Hat production declined dramatically while oil and banana cultivation took its place in leading the Ecuadorian economy.
The true panama montecristi hat continues to be a symbol of functional elegance as over the centuries its popularity has transcended passing trends and fads. Taking over twelve weeks from start to finish, the process of making the hats has changed little over time. Though there is a range in style and quality from the fine weave of the Montecristo and the coarser Cuenca hat tirelessly woven by the women of the city which bears its name, the commonality is the toquilla straw used for its production.
The toquilla palm or jipijapa palm is a palm-like plant which thrives in the fertile coastal climate rich in salt and lime. Still using the moon cycles, the temperature of the day and the age of the plant, the harvesters carefully hand cut the young green shoots which must be young but firm and then transported by lorry or mule to be turned into the straw woven in Cuenca or Montecristi.
The shoots are then boiled in earthen pots, dried in the wind away from the sun for days and then the toquilla is washed again. In order to produce the perfect colour, it will then undergo the bleaching process on a clay slab where sulphur will be slowly and vigilantly burned over the coals of the brazier to achieve the hat’s distinctive shade of ivory.
The straw must be flexible and after various stages of elaboration the finalstep of the hat must be done by weaving while standing over a tripod stand. Though there are many Ecuadorians who make their living from straw, only a handful can make the superfine weave used in a Montecristi where the form must be natural and the straw not be worked too long. It is said that excellence of a true Montecristi can be distinguished by counting the weaves of the crown.
The Montecristi might then find themselves in the hands of Don Rosendo Delgado Garray, “the prince of panamas” of Montecristi where they will make their way to luxury boutiques around the world to be formed by expert hands. Most likely final touch will be the black strip of cloth, known for centuries to be the ultimate indicator of this fine hat. Cargo ships have been primarily replaced by planes Guayaquil, Ecuador is still the taking off point for panama hats which continue to remain the eternal symbol of the essence of adventure and style.