Ever since the 1830s these hand-woven South American hats have oozed tropical style, with the finest examples being worn by great statesman like Churchill, Roosevelt and Napoleon. Not to mention Charlie Sheen and Bill Cosby.
But, in a weird twist of fate, not a single Panama hat in the history of Panama hats originates from Panama. All Panama hats are made in Ecuador – either in the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca or in a handful of small villages in the vicinity of Montecristi. Imitations are made in Mexico, Japan and Taiwan but all real Panama hats hail from Ecuador.
What’s in a name?
The reason for this misunderstanding is simple: the hats were named after the place where they were sold instead of their place of manufacture. In the 1830s an ambitious Spanish businessman by the name of Manuel Alfaro set up shop in Ecuador. Ecuador had loads of things worth selling (hats, pearls, cacao) but not many customers.
So, wily Manuel moved his merch to somewhere with loads of passing trade – Panama, the narrowest strip of land in the Americas and a thoroughfare for travelers wanting to get from one side of the United States to the other. Panama is hot and humid and the hats were cool and stylish. Hats from Panama started to get a name for themselves and when the California gold rush struck in the 1850s - and the trickle of passing traffic became a wave - their future (and their name) was sealed.
In Ecuador the hats are known as sombreros de paja toquilla (toquilla straw hats), a reference to the raw material used in their manufacture: the leaves of the toquilla palm.
A tale of two cities
But even in Ecuador not all Panama hats are created equal. Most Panama hats come from Cuenca, where they are produced in factories. Tourists visit the factories and buy the hats and return home happy. And there’s nothing wrong with that: Cuenca hats are handmade and they’re great to wear. But they’re not works of art.
The best hats are made in and around Montecristi, a village some 90 miles from the coastal city of Guayaquil. Montecristi hats use a different weave and finer straw to Cuenca hats, and only 2000 are produced every year. But this doesn’t make every Montecristi a work of art. This honour goes to the Montecristi superfinos, which are all made by one of 18 weavers.
The greatest weaver ever?
These weavers are all exceptional artisans but one man stands head and shoulders above the rest. Master-weaver Simón Espinal’s finest hat has a weave count of 3906 per square inch – that’s 100 times more than a Montecristi fino (which is still a very nice hat). The hat is currently for sale at $3 million dollars and is being marketed as a museum piece, not an item of clothing.
Understandably loads has been written about ‘the world’s most expensive hat’ but this article avoids sensationalizing the topic and this one gets technical. Or if you don’t feel like reading more just watch this mind-boggling video of Simón at work:
The mad hatter
It would be unfair to write about Panama hats without mentioning Brent Black, the Hawaiian hatter who was been almost single-handedly responsible for reviving the dying art of weaving Montecristi superfinos. Brent visited Montecristi in the early 90s after reading about the hats in the (excellent) travelogue The Panama Hat Trail (Tom Miller, 1988) and fell instantly in love. He quit his job as an ad exec and bought as many hats as he could afford, with a view to starting a hat business.
He is now the world expert on Montecristi hats and all of the best hats are sold by him. He has also done loads of good work in the community, and thanks to his efforts there is a chance that the art will be passed on to future generations. His website is an absolute wealth of information, but here are links to a few of my favorites:
First, read all about the history of the Panama hat
Now find out how the finest Panama hats are made (warning: it’s a ridiculously long and intricate process which involves master artisans known as cortadores, rematadores, planchadores, apaleadores and blockers...Not to mention the hat-maker himself)
Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of celebrities and world leaders who have worn Montecristi hats (people as diverse as Schwarzennegger, Stallone and Whitney Houston)
Full credit to Lietz Photography for the title image of this post.