The Spaniards took to wearing these hats themselves, naming them Toquillas due to their similarity to a 16th century wimple style headdress commonly called a ‘torque’ or ‘toca’ in Spanish . The name was also applied to the straw from which the hats were made, hence its common name in Ecuador is still ‘paja toquilla’.
The toquilla hat soon began its conquest of the United States. From 1848, prospectors heading for the Californian gold fields passed through Panama picking up hats on their way. It wasn’t long before large quantities of hats were being exported to California and contemporary illustrations and photographs often show prospectors wearing Panamas.
By 1849 Manuel Alfaro was exporting around 220,000 hats a year. All of the hats were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama, an important centre and staging post for international trade and travel, before being sent on to other destinations in the rest of the Americas, Asia and Europe. The hats began to become known by the name of their international point of sale, rather than their place of origin.
Frenchman Philippe Raimond, living in Panama, exhibited the toquilla hat at the 1855 World Fair in Paris and sold out of his considerable stocks. Ecuador was not mentioned as a participating country at the fair and the hat was christened the ‘Panama Hat’ thus further reinforcing the misnomer. By 1863 Ecuador’s exports of the hats had grown to 500,000 and Cuba became a good customer for plantation workers and socialites alike. Indeed, for many years Cuba bought up the entire output of the coastal town of Febres Cordero until Ecuador broke off relations with Cuba after Castro’s revolution in 1962.
During the construction of the Panama Canal in the early years of the 20th century prospectors, engineers and workers were provided with hats for protection, thus enforcing even further the association of the Equadorian toquilla hat with Panama. President Theodore Roosevelt who visited the Panama canal construction site in 1906 is frequently pictured wearing a Panama hat.
The golden age of Hollywood introduced the Panama to new generations, with many film stars wearing the hats both on and off screen. The Panama Hat has co-starred along side: Clarke Gable in Gone with the Wind, Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca, Edward G Robinson in Key Largo, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King and Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal.
Many writers are also associated with the hat: Mark Twain, Graham Green, Malcom Lowry, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe have all praised and worn the hats, their association bringing with it added elegance and style.
Today, you are just as likely see someone wearing a Panama at one of Britain’s summer music festivals as you would whilst watching cricket at Lord’s.
This is partly due to endorsements by A-list Panama hat wearers as Keira Knightly, Kate Moss and Johnny Depp, as well as the recognition of the practicality and timeless style of this favourite sun hat.