The Panama Hat

Ecuadorian Panama Hat

Traveling with Explor Cruises, you’ll learn those tidbits of information you may never realize have had an impact on the world–historically, culturally, commercially and even with a bit of fashion that created a style all its own.  Like The Panama Hat…

The Panama hat is endemic to Ecuador, with Panama mistakenly receiving credit for the hat’s origin over a century ago. These lightweight woven hats made a splash at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris. When they were shipped from Ecuador, they went via Panama, their last port of call before landing in Europe. By the end of the World’s Fair, Panama had gotten the credit for producing the hat, and the Emperor Napoleon III became perhaps the first in a long line of celebrities associated with the headpiece.

As far back as the 16th century, Ecuadoreans were wearing and weaving hats from paja toquilla, a fiber from the leaves of the Carludovica palmata palm. The fibers from these plants were boiled and dried and then painstakingly crafted into the final product. Cities in Manabí province developed into major centers for the production of these hats. A single artisan can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months to craft just one superfino (super-fine) hat. Major production was moved to Cuenca in 1836, and then spread throughout the provinces of Azuay and Cañar, now the largest centers of hat production in Ecuador.

After taking Paris by storm, the hats began covering the heads of American troops during the Spanish-American war (1898). Gold miners who arrived in California by way of the Isthmus of Panama also donned these light and breathable hats, whose popularity escalated further when a photograph circulated of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt wearing one. Other prominent politicians to wear Panama hats included Winston Churchill and Nikita Khrushchev. The Panama hat also has its fair share of Hollywood credits, having graced the heads of stars as diverse as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, and Danny Glover.

Today, despite the popularity of the Panama hat, few, except those who visit Ecuador, know its true origins.

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