No country in the world is Panama hat free, a testament to the versatility and enduring style of the toquilla-straw hats which have come from a hillside town called Monetcristi since the 17th century. The ‘Panama’ got its name from where they were primarily sold to the international market. Although the earliest evidence of a Panama hat can be found on a small ceramic figure attributed to the Valdivia culture of Ecuador which has been dated to 4,000 B.C. This natural hat grew in popularity thanks to Ecuadorean entrepreneurs in the 1840s who sent them to Panama in their thousands; thereafter, gold prospectors on their way to California brought them to the attention of the US population. When Frenchman Philippe Raimond, living in Panama, exhibited the toquilla hat at the 1855 World Fair in Paris and sold out of his considerable stocks Ecuador was not mentioned as a participating country at the fair and the hat was christened the ‘Panama Hat’, further reinforcing the misnomer.The Panama’s status really took off when President Roosevelt wore one for a visit of the construction of the Panama canal in November 1906.
Although Panamas fell out of favour in the second half of the 20th century data from Ecuador’s Central Bank suggests popularity is resurging. In 2003 a mere $517,000 of finished hats were exported but in 2003 this figure leapt to $6m. Apparently most of the hats are designed for Italy, Britain (any cricket match in the UK will attest this) and the US where prices vary from the faint to the ridiculous.
Whilst most people look acceptable in a Panama only a few really look refined, a family friend/my grandfather figure from India was one. In the past I have given this crown topper as a present for significant birthdays as a symbol of enduring style.
Quite rightly, Ecuador is now trying to promote sustainable production of its famous export. According to Andres Ycaza of the Ecuadorean Intellectual Property Institute (IEPI), a skilled weaver earns $800 for a hat worth $2000. Clearly this is an under-paid skill considering it was listed by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage”. In a further effort to protect the craft, IEPI is trying to gain designation-of-origin status for the Montecristi hat (such status is already appreciated by the likes of Roquefort cheese). However, support is not being offered by the city of Cuenca in the Southern Andes where most Panama hats are exported from. The worry is that weavers who move from Montecristi to Cuenca will not have their craft recognised despite embodying the same quality.
In a bid to source the most ethical Panama hats, the ones I have given in the past come from Pachacuti, a fair trade Panama brand. Just like you can read about the farmer who raises the cows who produce your milk from Waitrose, Pachacuti enables you to learn about the people who provided the raw materials and constructed your hat. Transparency in the fashion world is sadly uncommon but Pachacuti has been part of a three year long EU GEO Fair Trade Project which was designed to produce a new tool with which consumers can access geo-specific environmental and social data about the products they purchase. The importance of Pachacuti’s participation in particular is that the company was the only non-commodity pilot.
The quality and durability of Pachutui’s hats comes in the fact that each one can be rolled up, perfect for the travelling sartorialist!