Description

The sombrero de paja toquilla (toquilla straw hat) is hand-woven from the boiled, dried, and bleached fibers of toquilla (carludovica palmata), which comes from a palm tree native to the Pacific coast of present-day Ecuador. The weaving process of these hats can take between 1 day and 8 months, depending on the quality. The weaving techniques are transmitted through observation and imitation, and likely build on both pre-Hispanic techniques and European techniques introduced by Spanish invaders with colonization. [1]

Despite originating in present-day Ecuador and southern Colombia, the sombrero de paja toquilla is known internationally as the “Panama Hat.” Some narratives suggest that this name was the result of the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904–14, when workers were given these hats to protect themselves from the sunlight. [2] Other accounts suggest that it was United States President Theodore Roosevelt who popularized the so-called Panama hat after wearing it on a tour of the Panama Canal in 1906. [3] A third hypothesis is that the “Panama hat” became popular with the California Gold Rush of the 19th century, especially after it was exhibited at the Paris World Fair of 1855 and was worn by Emperor Napoleon III himself. [4] Hollywood celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper also wore sombreros de paja toquilla, both on and off the screen, helping spread the rage for these hats. [5] Nowadays, the so-called “Panama Hat” is a summer essential and is featured frequently in style spreads in fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and personal style blogs. [6]

Throughout the Hispanic Americas, the sombrero de paja toquilla has received names associated with the places where it is produced: sombrero de Jipijapa and sombrero de Montecristi for two of the main production sites since at least the 19th century in Ecuador, or sombrero aguadeño, created in the municipality of Aguadas in Colombia. [7]

In 2012, the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat was declared Immaterial Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). [8]

Details

Appropriation and Influence

Photo of models behind the scenes of Chanel's Cruise 2016-17 fashion show, wearing Ecuadorian toquilla straw hats, commonly known as “Panama hats”

Chanel “Panama Hats” (Cruise 2016/17 Collection)

For its Cruise 2016/17 collection, the French high fashion brand Chanel produced “Panama Hats” woven with fine, bleached straws, and with a black band, like the traditional sombreros de paja toquilla. Some of the hats featured in this collection also have a stylized cloth camellia, representative of the brand, adorning the black band. Although Chanel’s blog recognizes that this is an “iconic hat of Latin America” [9] little else is mentioned about the hat, its manufacture, and the origin of the versions sold by Chanel.

Image source: Chanel News.

Product photography of Martín Pescador “Super Fine” Panama Hat with orange band on a white background

Martín Pescador “Super Fine” Panama Hat

Sold by Colombian brand Martín Pescador, this “Panama Hat” is said to be woven by Colombian artisans. [10] When reading the company’s “About Us” page on their website, it becomes clear that the brand’s identity is strongly based on the coastal city of Cartagena de Indias, in the Caribbean region of the country. Hats are said to be “carefully hand-woven […by…] local artisans” following “age-old tradition[s].” [11] However, the weaving of toquilla fibers was likely uncommon in the northern-Atlantic coast of Colombia before the nineteenth century, as these are native to the Pacific coast of the Andes, further south and west. This kind of conflation and confusion of ancestral techniques is not only simplistic, but might also lead to the loss of cultural heritage.

Image source: Martín Pescador.

Photo of back of person with long hair and black, off-the-shoulder top wearing a straw had with a braided band

Hats sold by The Panama Hat Company

The Panama Hat Company was born after Jenny Froehlich, of Ecuadorian descent, visited Cuenca in the 1980s and decided to advocate for local weavers of toquilla straw hats so that they could earn better incomes from their products. However, it is unclear whether the hats sold by this company are made in Ecuador by artisans who have traditionally woven toquilla straw hats, or in the UK. The company’s website states that these hats are both “Genuine Panama Woven in Ecuador” and “Made in England.” [12] Similarly, the “Ladies Capeline Panama” (pictured here) is said to be “Handwoven in Ecuador and finished to the highest standard in England.” [13] Such contradictory statements make it difficult to attest whether these hats are genuinely made by artisans in Ecuador or if the company is only using this information as a sales strategy.

Image source: The Panama Hat Company.

Male model wearing a toquilla straw hat with black band and a red jacket over a blue shirt

Homero Ortega “Classic” Men’s Panama Hat

Based in Cuenca, Ecuador, Homero Ortega produces a variety of sombreros de paja toquilla for the international market. Of particular importance is the educational mission of the brand to share the history of the so-called “Panama Hat” both in its website and the Panama Hat Museum that it has founded. [14] The museum, called “La magia del sombrero” (The magic of the hat), lives in the company’s headquarters and is a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in both Ecuador and Paris. [15]

Image source: Homero Ortega.

Endnotes

[1] “Traditional weaving of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat,” UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, accessed October 15, 2021, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/traditional-weaving-of-the-ecuadorian-toquilla-straw-hat-00729

[2] “Historia del Panama Hat,” Homero Ortega, accessed November 15, 2021, https://homeroortega.com/historia-del-panama-hat/

[3] Georgina O’Hara Callan, “panama hat,” in The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers, ed. Cat Glover (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008), 190.

[4] Beverly Chico, Hats and Headwear Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013), 82; Roff Smith, “He’s Just Woven The World’s Finest Panama Hat. But Who Will Buy It?” NPR, August 8, 2015, accessed November 28, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/08/08/340682706/hes-just-woven-the-worlds-finest-panama-hat-but-who-will-buy-it.

[5] Chico, Hats and Headwear, 82.

[6] See, for example, Luxy Kebbell, “How to wear a panama hat,” Harper’s Bazaar, May 13, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/fashion/what-to-wear/news/g36836/how-to-wear-a-panama-hat/; Sophie Schulte-Hillen, “Why Breezy Waves and Panama Hats Are a Lazy Girl’s Best Hair Strategy,” Vogue, July 23, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.vogue.com/article/best-wavy-hairstyle-ideas-summer-panama-hats-bedhead-emily-ratajkowski-los-angeles-alessandra-ambrosio.

[7] Cynthia Lawson-Jaramillo, “162. Celebrar a los artesanos como diseñadores (Colombia/EEUU). Una entrevista con Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo,” Diseño y diáspora, Podcast Audio, 33 minutes, 14 de septiembre de 2020, https://disenoydiaspora.org/2020/09/14/162-celebrar-a-los-artesanos-como-disenadores-colombia-eeuu-una-entrevista-con-cynthia-lawson-jaramillo/; Vannie Arrocha Morán, “Historia del sombrero Panamá que popularizó Theodore Roosevelt,” El mundo, March 25, 2015, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.elmundo.es/tendencias/2015/03/25/55116a13e2704ee9178b456d.html

[8] “Traditional weaving.”

[9] Chanel, “Panama Hats,” Chanel News, May 5, 2016, accessed November 20, 2021, https://www.chanel.com/en_CA/fashion/news/2016/05/panama-hats.html

[10] “Sombrero Panama Hat Super Fino 100% Paja Toquilla – Color Cinta Salmon – Herraje Moneda,” Martín Pescador, accessed November 26, 2021, https://martinpescador.co/products/copia-de-sombrero-panama-hat-super-fino-100-paja-toquilla-color-cinta-salmon-herraje-moneda

[11] “About Us,” Martín Pescador, accessed November 26, 2021, https://martinpescador.co/pages/about-us

[12] “Our Story,” The Panama Hat Company, accessed November 20, 2021, https://panamahats.co.uk/products/Ladies-Capeline-Panama.html

[13] “Ladies Capeline Panama,” The Panama Hat Company, accessed November 20, 2021, https://panamahats.co.uk/products/Ladies-Capeline-Panama.html.

[14] “Historia del Panama Hat.”

[15] “Museo,” Homero Ortega, accessed November 15, 2021, https://homeroortega.com/museo/.

References

Callan, Georgina O’Hara. “Panama hat.” In The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers, edited by Cat Glover, 190. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

Chico, Beverly. Hats and Headwear Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

Smith, Roff. “He’s Just Woven The World’s Finest Panama Hat. But Who Will Buy It?” NPR. August 8, 2015. Accessed November 28, 2021. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/08/08/340682706/hes-just-woven-the-worlds-finest-panama-hat-but-who-will-buy-it.

“Traditional weaving of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat,” UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, accessed October 15, 2021, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/traditional-weaving-of-the-ecuadorian-toquilla-straw-hat-00729.

Learn More

Podcast: In “Fashion in Focus: The Panama Hat,” Jasmine Helm reveals the history of the toquilla straw hat, which originated and is still manufactured in Ecuador.

Article: “He’s Just Woven The World’s Finest Panama Hat. But Who Will Buy It?” follows the work of toquilla straw hat weaver Simon Espinal and narrates the history of the so-called Panama Hats.

Podcast: In a Spanish-language interview titled “Celebrar a los artesanos como diseñadores,” Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo argues that we must recognize artisans as designers and spends some time talking about sombreros aguadeños, also known as “Panama Hats.”

Refer to The Library for even more resources on the so-called Panama Hat.