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The Legacy of the Panama Hat: Why the Panama Hat is More than Just Headgear

Panama Hat

A hike to the Chiriqui Highlands will not be complete without wearing one of Panama’s treasured legacies to the world, the  sombrero  de paja toquillaor more popularly known as Panama Hats. A type of flat, wide-brimmed straw hat manufactured from the fronds of Carludovia palmata, the Panama or toquilla palm, it first became known to the world during the construction of the famed Panama Canal where workers wore the hat to shade them from the intense heat of the tropical sun.

The distinctive style woven in lacy, elegant patterns assured the outstanding quality of the hats which are widely recognized by experts as the finest of all straw hats. Although known as Panama hats, its beginnings are actually rooted in Ecuador during the age of the Incas. Symbols of Incan resourcefulness, straw hats were woven from palm leaves, making significant improvements on the design of the hats worn then by Spanish Conquistadors.

A derivative of the Spanish word for hat, it came to be known as toca, and the palm came to be known as toquilla palm, hence the term,  sombrero   de paja toquilla meaning “hat made from toquilla straw”. It then came to be known as “Panama hat” because it was easier to say and pronounce than its Spanish name.     

With its wide edge and bleached straw woven in tight even patterns, a Panama hat offers shelter and repels not only the sun but also the midday drizzle. Depending on the strength of its structure, Panama hats prices range widely, with some hats fetching large sums of money.

Although the Panama hat was initially known as worker hats, it became quite popular when iconic figures started wearing them. From Sir Winston Churchill to Theodore Roosevelt, who was the first famous person to be seen wearing a Panama hat. Even in the movies, there's the enduring image of the male protagonist in a linen shirt, khaki pants and a panama hat worn in a jaunty manner. It played a remarkable role as seen in the Indiana Jones series where Indy’s fedora hat, although not made from straw, was unmistakably inspired by a Panama hat.

The current status of Panama hats mirror the acceptance of a tradition and continuing legacy even in the face of changing styles in today's modern world.  Its particular style will undoubtedly continue to endure as long as there are people who are willing to weave them. It is one of Panama’s finest exports to the world, even brighter than the star of the legendary Manos de Piedras, Roberto Duran.  Even the Panama Canal may be more famous but the panama hat is definitely more.

The thought of fanning yourself with a Panama hat under the extreme tropical heat,  or having it shield your head while you walk through the lush rainforests and spectacular views of the Chiriqui Highlands, lends some tropical comfort. The Panama hat, even under the face of modernization, maintains its purpose, which is to provide shelter and crown for the common man.

You can order your Panama hat here.


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