The Panama Hat, it can be found on celebrities, explorers, world leaders, royalty and regular joes on hot summer days, whether deep in the jungle, on the sidelines of the polo field or on the streets of any major city. It is a hat that was born of the bush, used by the working man and adopted by the successful.
The Non Panama Roots
Its history, as I was to learn, began in the mid 1800’s when the Ecuadorian hat makers – where ironically true Panama Hats are hand woven – needed to sell their wares. During the California gold rush, the fastest way from the east coast was to travel by ship to Panama, cross the isthmus and catch another ship up to San Francisco. Those making the arduous journey sought relief from the oppressive sun and bought the hats made of Toquilla straw. Those gold prospectors that were successful and returned via the same route purchased new hats to accompany their new suits when walking the streets of New York and Boston.
When asked “where did you get that hat?” the natural response was of course, “in Panama” and thus it became known. During the building of the Panama Canal the workers purchased these hats by the thousands to protect themselves. It was during this time that a photo was taken whereupon the Panama Hat was revealed to the world. The image was captured on November 16, 1906 and depicted then President Theodore Roosevelt wearing a Panama hat while visiting the canal.
Whether it was this photo, or the just the gradual migration of a product that led to its popularity can never be known. What can be said is that the hat has remained a part of the dapper gentleman’s wardrobe, albeit ebbing and flowing, over the past 160 years. Just a partial glance at the men who have donned the Panama Hat is truly impressive. The Prince of Wales, Charlton Heston, Peter O’Toole, John Kennedy, Earnest Hemmingway, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Charlie Sheen, Daniel Craig, Johnny Depp and Usher, not to mention a fair number of beautiful women, have all enjoyed the look and feel of the white straw fedora. In fact, a current male model for Louis Vuitton is none other than Sean Connery outfitted in a Panama hat.
The Hat In Today’s World
The Panama Hat still has a rightful place in the wardrobe of any dapper gent in 2015. In my humble opinion, the beauty of the hat lies in its clean lines and its adaptability to a variety of settings. Whether sitting on the head of a young man riding a beach cruiser on the coast in Santa Monica, California wearing nothing but shorts, shirt and flip flops, to a dapper gent walking a Parisian promenade in a light colored linen suit, it works and gets noticed.
As with most things these days, the Panama Hat has expanded to a variety of options, from the color of the hat itself, to the color of the band, and the width and shape of the brim. It thus requires you to go to your local haberdashery and try on the hats to determine which suits you. If you are like me and wearing a hat with a suit or more dressy attire is foreign, my suggestion is to scan Google Images for those that have gone before you. How have they worn it? What do you have hanging in your closet that would move well with a Panama Hat? I’m willing to bet you have a lot more than you think. When you do go out sporting this legendary statement piece, own it. You will be noticed. Women will look you in the eyes, and men will ask about it, perhaps even to try it on. I urge you to “go for it,” for under the protective brim, you run with a class of man that anyone would be honored to call an amigo. If you feel the urge to light up a nice cigar and pour an ample dram of rum, well, that’s okay too.