A Panama hat (sometimes informally among hat enthusiasts, just a Panama - see Isthmus of Panama) is a traditional brimmed hat of Ecuadorian origin that is made from the plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant (Carludovica palmata). Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe. For some products, the name reflects their point of international sale rather than their place of domestic origin; hence "Panama hats".
The 49ers picked up these hats in Panama, and when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal construction, he wore such a hat, which increased its popularity. They're also known as a Jipijapa, named for a town in Ecuador. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a use of the term as early as 1834.
Glorified during the 19th century, the Panama has since been considered the prince of straw hats. The Ecuadorian national hero and emblematic figure Eloy Alfaro helped finance his liberal revolution of Ecuador through the export of panamas. The reputation of the hat was established by Napoleon III, Edward VII, and some other aficionados.
Panama hats are often seen as accessories to summer-weight suits, such as those made of linen or silk. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, panamas began to be associated with the seaside and tropical locales, such as Brighton or the Caribbean. They are usually preferred over felt hats in such climates, for they are light coloured, light weight, and breathable. The Panama is preferred for travel because its design allows it to return to its original shape after being folded in a suitcase.
Beginning in the early 1960s, hats in general were worn less often. However, the Panama seems to be one of the few hats to survive the test of time. Men can still be seen sporting a Panama in warm climates. It is by no means as popular as it was during the golden age of hats, but it is still surviving, for instance, as sported by Marylebone Cricket Club members, singer Jason Mraz, or actors Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins. Actor William Christopher also wore one when he portrayed Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H*. As a matter of fact, well-founded hat companies, such as Dobbs, Stetson and Cavanaugh, now produce more Panama hats than felt hats, such as fedoras or bowlers.
Panama-hat quality is a heavily disputed subject. There are two main processes in the hat's creation: weaving and blocking. The best way to gauge the quality of the weave is to count the number of weaves per square inch. Fewer than 100 would be considered low quality. There are many degrees of increasing quality, up to the rarest and most expensive hats, which can have as many as 1600–2500 weaves per square inch; it is not unheard of for these hats to sell for thousands of dollars apiece. Such a hat is known as the Montecristi, named after the Ecuadorian city that produces the best Panamas. The second best type is the Cuenca, again, named for an Ecuadorian city.
The quality of the weave itself, however, is more important. A high weave count, even an attractive-looking one, does not guarantee a well-woven hat. It is said that a Panama of true quality (a "superfino") can hold water and when rolled for storage can pass through a wedding ring. However, Ecuadorian hatmakers disagree on how to rate the lesser-quality hats.
Although the Panama hat continues to provide a livelihood for thousands of Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers capable of making the finest "Montecristi superfinos" remain. The UK's Financial Times Magazine of 13 January 2007 reported that there might be no more than 15–20 years remaining for the industry in Ecuador, due to the competition of paper-based Chinese-made imitations, especially as a few hat sellers dominate and manipulate the market. Panama hats can take up to 4 months to weave. They usually take 2 months to weave.
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