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History of Panama Hats

The Extraordinary Panama Hat

By an unusual quirk of history, the Isthmus, linking North and South America, has given its name to an elegant head-dress known throughout the world as THE PANAMA HAT.

At the turn of the century, the men whose strength and fortitude, tested under a tropical sun, sliced the continent in two, used as protection the elegant fibre hats from Ecuador, and in so doing inadvertently "christened" them with a name which belies their origin.

For Ecuador, this has been a mixed blessing. That the canal was responsible for the Panama's great popularity in the early part of the century is without question. But, in that it has created confusion concerning its origin has ever since been lamented by its true creator and only country of origin and manufacture, Ecuador.

Paja Toquilla, indigenous to the coastal regions of Ecuador, is the plant from which Panamas are woven. Their history can be traced as far back as the Incas who were the first to weave hats from this fibrous plant. Such hats were first observed in the 16th century.

In the 18th century they found their way into the United States where their superior qualities were quickly appreciated and where they have been much sort after ever since.

During the American-Spanish war (1898), the US Government ordered from Ecuador 50,000 "sombreros de paja toquilla", as they are correctly called, for their troops heading for the Caribbean. But earlier, in 1855, a Frenchman living in Ecuador took some to the World Exposition in Paris. The finest was presented to the great French dandy, Napoleon III. From that time on, the "toquilla" has reigned supreme over the crowed heads of Europe.

In England, much encouraged by royal patronage, The Panama quickly attained the enviable position as the most fashionable summer hat: a position it has retained to the present day.

"One hundred pounds for a Panama, enough with which to take three month's holiday: enough to keep your son at college, enough to buy a small farm..."So proclaimed the writer of an article in the Strand Magazine in 1902 when describing the phenomenon of the Panama craze that had hit society at that time. What would the equivalent price be today? Or why were such sums paid for a mere hat? Even Edward VII parted with £ 90.00 after asking his Bond Street hatter to obtain the "finest Panama available!"

It was a craze that was given a further boost in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing one when viewing the Panama Canal under construction.

Although its popularity waned in the post-war period, it is today enjoying a remarkable return. Its revival has been attributed to its appearance in the period films and television series reminding us just how elegant and good looking the Panama Hat can be. It has also featured in television commercials thus increasing people's awareness of its attractiveness.

Another interesting aspect of its history is the tradition of the black band with which the majority of Panamas are trimmed. This originates from its most popular period in 1901, the year of the death of Queen Victoria.

The Panama Hat was selected by the Conrad Foundation for the 1985 Boilerhouse Project at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as one of the "100 best designs ever". A belated accolade for one Francisco Delgado who is credited with having originated the Panama Hat in the Manabi district of Ecuador in the 17th century. Locally, his name is still revered.

Another name synonymous with fine quality Panamas is Montecristi, a small town in Ecuador where to this day the finest quality Panama Hats are still woven.

Let us hope that the new-found popularity of The Panama Hat, which in the coming season is expected to be greater still, will benefit those skilled custodians of such a wonderful, historic and truly ancient craft.