Origins of the Renowned Panama Hat

While they are not seen as widely today as they were just a few decades ago, the Panama hat is widely recognized. This traditional brimmed hat has been made by the people of Ecuador for hundreds of years and it has gone from being a household item, to a fashion statement and back again within a relatively short space of time.

But just where does this humble, but necessary, item of clothing come from? How old is this hat and how is it made? These questions about the origins of the panama hat might well float through your head if you are ever able to visit a traditional craft market whilst travelling in Ecuador. It is at these craft markets where you will find a great number of beautiful Panama hats on display.

Traditionally, a Panama hat is made from the plaited leaves of the ‘Carludovica palmate’. The plant is also known as a ‘panama-hat palm’ or as a toquilla palm. It is essentially a finely woven, hand-made straw hat and variations of the hat have been found across the globe for hundreds of years. However, for a hat to be a genuine ‘Panama’, it must come from Ecuador and be made from the right palm species. Today the majority of Panama Hats are made in Cuenca. Higher quality hats are considered to be more densely woven and hats which are incredibly finely woven can fetch incredibly high price tags.

It is thought that the Panama hat descended from the wide-brimmed straw field hat that was widely-used by the Greeks and Romans of ancient times. It was the conquering Romans that introduced the straw hat to the far-flung corners of the earth and it is due to this civilization that so many different Latin countries have their own version of the Panama hat today. However, the true shape and weave of the Panama was born in Ecuador and it is this country which can be accredited with the unique and timeless styling that has made the Panama hat a fashion icon.

So why the use of the name ‘Panama’ if the hat has nothing to do with Panama? No one is sure of exactly how the hat got this name but it likely has something to do with the decision to carve out the Panama Canal in order to reduce traveling time for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The hat would have been an accessible commodity in the region and since it was likely first introduced to Europeans in large quantities in Panama, it can be surmised that visiting builders and surveyors gave the hat the name of ‘Panama Hat’. Whether that is true or not remains the subject of much debate. However, regardless of where the hat got its name, one thing is for certain: it remains one of the most widely used, produced and sold hats in the world.