With their ability to instantly create a character or enhance a persona, hats have a long relationship with the movies. From Chaplin’s bowler to the felt fedora of Indiana Jones, from the different style cowboy hats of countless Westerns to the pirate’s tricorn of Captain Jack Sparrow, hats have helped define the look of some of cinema’s most iconic characters. Through it all though, one item of headwear stands head and shoulders above the rest — the not-so-humble Panama Hat!
Although it is uncertain as to when the Panama hat made its onscreen debut, there are certainly no shortages of examples of its appearances. It proved particularly popular during cinema’s golden age in the thirties and forties and was often used as a visual metaphor for sophistication and wealth. Films such as Key Largo and Casablanca all feature this elegant headwear, although, in Casablanca, Bogart eschewed the traditional Panama and wore the equally iconic felt fedora instead, leaving the character of Victor Lazlo to carry the torch. Clark Gable wears a planter style Panama in Gone With The Wind. Perhaps one of the most fitting use of the Panama hat from the Golden Age of Cinema can be found in the 20th Century Fox film, ‘Charlie Chan in Panama’ wherein this magnificent millinery makes an appearance in just about every scene in one way or another.
As we move forward through cinema history, the Panama hat continues to prevail, appearing in revered classics from ‘The Naked Jungle’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to ‘The Man Who Would be King’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’. While most items of clothing or apparel tend to wander in and out of style over time, the Panama hat seems to have endured. Even in more contemporary cinema, the hat continues to make appearances. Witness Hannibal Lecter sporting one as he makes plans to have a recent nemesis “to dinner” and, more recently, Johnny Depp (who is fond of wearing the Panama off screen too) as he portrays Paul Kemp, the protagonist of Hunter S. Thompson’s long unpublished novel, The Rum Diaries.
With its distinctive style developed during the time of the Spanish Conquistadors based on the art of weaving developed by the indigenous people of modern-day Ecuador long before the Spanish arrived, the Panama hat has weathered the test of time to become a timeless symbol of elegance, style, and sophistication. Whereas it might not be as ubiquitous as the MGM Lion or the Fox Fanfare, it’s still safe to say that the Panama hat has certainly earned its place in cinema history.