You’re not alone if you’ve assumed this whole time that the Panama hat originates from Panama. The truth is the Panama hat is not from Panama but from Ecuador. So why is it that the name “Panama hat” is stuck in the first place? Here’s the story.
We start at the true origins of the hat. Ecuador has had a tradition of weaving hats for over 500 years. Using the abundantly available toquilla straw (a type of palm), locals wove fibres into hats for practical purposes. Over time, the appearance of the common hat evolved, becoming the iconic brimmed headpiece we all know today by the 19th Century. Locally, these hats are referred to by the material they are crafted from, toquilla also called jipijapa.
As international trade kicked up in the 1800s, these straw-woven hats from Ecuador were one of many South American exports shipped to the Isthmus of Panama before departing to their final destinations in Asia, Europe, and the rest of the Americas. The hats certainly made an impression abroad; they began appearing in publications, and dedicated businesses erupted. Around this time, the name “Panama hat” started popping up, referring to their point of international sale rather than production origin.
The California gold rush of the mid-1800s catapulted the Panama “brand” even further as the traffic between South and North America increased, and there was a great need for hats for laborious outdoor activity. But perhaps the biggest “celebrity endorsement” for the Panama hat came in 1906 when US President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed sporting the hat at a construction site visit to the Panama Canal in 1906.
While this certainly makes you rethink the name of the Panama hat, its global popularity has kept the indigenous craftsmanship of the hat alive as it continues to be made exclusively in Ecuador. (Made anywhere else, and the hat’s quality just simply cannot be matched and shouldn’t be considered the same.)
In 2012, UNESCO actually declared toquilla straw hats “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” On top of that, there’s the Montecristi Superfino, the creme de la creme, and the Rolls-Royce of these Ecuadorian-made hats. Although a dying craft, the Montecristi is considered by artisans and connoisseurs to be the supreme model of the Ecuadorian hat with its intricate and delicate weave.
So, the next time you’re wearing or thinking of the “Panama hat”, remember its real
legacy and share it with anyone who might still think that the Panama hat is from