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Panama hats are informal, trendy and stylish. Very versatile and can be worn in the city, or on Safari. I love these and have rather a few. I always feel in vogue when wearing my Panama, they're very old-school (in the 1930's sense) and look great dressed up or down. A great look at the moment is to wear a cream-coloured Panama hat, a marl grey t-shirt with perhaps some fluorescent illustration (see artist Julie Verhoeven) and a pair of baggy boyfriend jeans. This look can be teamed with a pair of leather gladiator sandals. Lots of chunky jewellery and bed-head hair. Good look for the summer months coming up. I do strongly suggest that anyone who has an inkling to get one should go for it. Ah yes, the ribbon around it is usually in a lovely grosgrain which too, is very stylish. Enjoy this hat, you'll have it for life.
I've always liked to wear something on my head, I'm not the elegant lady-like type and not very courageous fashion-wise, I've never worn a stylish felt creation adorned with feathers and stuff, I'm more a straw hat in summer and woollen cap in winter woman. Some years ago I decided to wear not just any cheap straw hat any more but the real thing, a Panama hat, as it becomes an elderly lady. But it's not only this, I've never been a one for sunbathing and after two cataract operations I've become even more adverse to direct sunshine, I need my hat now. Of course, I don't get a suntan this way, but I won't get skin cancer, either.
I found a good offer in a brochure of a Third World Shop, I opted for the 'male' hat, a fedora, (you can see what this and other types look like on: http://panamahatsdirect.com/panama-hat-Styles.htm) I like it better than the 'female' hat which is too twee for me. My hats used to look good for two summers, then they broke at the point where the ridges meet in the front, when the breaking process started and only fine fissures were visible, I put some liquid glue on the critical point from the inside, this helped for some time, but when the fibres broke and the glue showed it was thither with the old hat into the box for carnival costumes for children and hither with a new one.
The Third World Shop doesn't offer Panama hats any more so I bought the next hat in a hat shop spending more money, but it's worked better and fits better, so I don't complain. It has a hat band on the inside of the crown which keeps it in shape and I've bought exactly the size that's right for me, with my hats from the brochure I could only get an approximate size, I always took one a big wider than necessary because they don't get wider with use but can be made tighter with a thread pulled through the base of the crown from the inside.
Did you know that Panama hats were exclusively made in Ecuador? Their origin can be traced back as far as the 16th century when the Incas were the first to use the Toquila plant to weave hats. Why aren't the hats called Ecuador hats then? In 1855, a Frenchman living in Ecuador took some to the World Exhibition in Paris, the finest hat was presented to the then Emperor Napoleon III and immediately became a fashion item among the Royalty; in the 19th century the hats found their way to the United States during the American-Spanish war in 1998, the US government ordered 50 000 'sombrero de paja toquila' (hats of the toquila plant) for their troops.
The big breakthrough, however, came at the beginning of the last century when the workers involved in the construction of the Panama Canal used the hats as protection against the burning sun, from then on the item was called 'Panama hat'. When in 1906 President Roosevelt was photographed wearing a Panama hat when he was visiting the canal under construction its popularity was enhanced even more. In England, royal patronage has helped to make the Panama hat the most fashionable summer hat, in 1985 it was declared to belong to the '100 best designs ever'.
Panama hats are not mass produced, each hat is unique and made by hand, the weaving has remained a cottage industry in Ecuador. Coarse hats may take a few hours to weave but the finer ones may take up to 5 months, can you imagine! How much do they cost then? Well, the simple variety can be bought for around 20 GBP whereas the top products can fetch a retail price of 1000 GBP.
What is the difference between fine and coarse hats? Weaving begins at the apex of the crown, a spiral of rings or vueltas spans out from there, it's the number of vueltas that determines the quality of a hat, the cheaper quality has up to ten vueltas, the expensive one can have as many as forty. From the net: " The greatest weavers work only by the light of the moon or when the sky is overcast. Constantly dipping their sharp pointed fingers in water, they split the fibres razor thin, and with all the virtuosity of a spinning wheel, plait ring after ring of palm into fabric so soft and dense that it equals silk. The hats are then pummelled and trimmed and groomed and scrubbed. . . .
"The sides and crown are carefully beaten to even them out, but without damaging the hat. The finishing processes after this are the only semi-industrialised part of the production but are accomplished with hand operated tools or devices at most. The ironing and blocking process begins either in Ecuador or at the site of a blocker and seller overseas and a lot of ironing is done with an old fashioned cast metal iron heated on a stove. Initial ironing of the brim through a cloth is needed to remove undulations. At the last, before blocking, the raw edges of fibres are trimmed from the brim and it is back woven to prevent fraying." (Some informative piccies about this on http://www.brentblack.com/styles_cost.htm)
You may have heard that Panama hats can be folded, rolled up and carried around in the breast pocket of a suit until needed, not were we live, though! Our climate is too dry, this can only be done in the tropics where humidity is high, here the fibres would break or the hat would lose its shape completely. If it only has some creases, there is no problem, I've travelled with my hats in a plastic bag, stowed them carefully in the luggage compartment of a plane and then fondled and caressed them until they were back in shape. If that doesn't help and the hat is severely disfigured, one can iron it with a damp cloth between hat and iron. A damp cloth can also be used to clean the hat(pigeon shit!).
When I was on Tenerife the last time I noticed a new shop selling Panama hats and I saw many tourists with new Panama hats. How did I know that the hats were new and that they hadn't brought them with them as I had done? Well, new hats are white, the older a hat becomes the more cream / beige it becomes, it gets a tan so-to-speak.
The standard Panama hat has a black band [the piccie at the top of this site doesn't show the real thing, the one on my profile site does, though :-)], this has bothered me sometimes because black doesn't go well with a colourful summer dress, only now have I learnt the reason and consider removing the black band and substituting it with a coloured one. Why should I, a German subject living in the 21st century, wear the sign of mourning for the British Queen Victoria who died in 1901? Since then the hat bands of Panama hats have been black, who's responsible for this absurdity I don't know. But if I remove the black band, my hat isn't the real thing any more, what should I do?
I don't know how many summers my current hat will live but I'm already thinking of its successor, it will be one with a pattern in the crown.