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A Legendary Hat

JOURNEY OF A PANAMA HAT

Expertly hand-woven from the palm- like grass Carludovica Palmata, few items are as much of a style, class and fashion statement as the Panama Hat. The Panama hat has been a quintessential symbol of British summer fashion ever since 1906 when Edward VII rejected formal morning dress in favour of a linen suit topped off with a fine panama hat to attend Glorious Goodwood.

The earliest evidence of a Panama hat is said to be found on the head of a small ceramic figure attributed to the Valdivia culture of Ecuador which has been dated to 4,000 B.C. The conquistadors record finding the indigenous peoples of the coast wearing straw hats that were shaped liked bats wings covering the wearer’s ears and neck. The Spaniards adapted the style and took to wearing these hats themselves, naming them Toquillas due to their similarity to a 16th brimless or narrow brimmed hat commonly called a ‘toque’ in Spanish which was worn by both men and women. The Spaniards also applied the name to the straw from which the hats were made, hence Carludovica Palmata’s common name in Ecuador is still ‘paja toquilla’, toquilla straw and Panama hat weavers are known as toquilleras.

In the late 18th century José Pavon and Hipolito Ruiz, botanists from the royal gardens in Madrid, named the plant Carludovica Palamata, a merging of the names of  King Carlos IV of Spain and his wife Ludovica. 149 new plant species were presented in Europe at the same time as Carludovica Palmata. The majority were named after great men of Europe and this was the only plant to be named, in part, after a woman.

PANAMA HAT PRODUCTION IN MONTECRISTI AND JIPIJAPA

From the early 1600’s, hat weaving evolved as a cottage industry on the coast of Ecuador. Jipijapa and Montecristi, two villages where weaving took place, gave their names to the hats produced there. The name Montecristi is still associated with the Panama hat, thanks to the skills of the weavers in producing the finest of hats, whilst hats woven in Becal, Mexico, are known as Jipijapas. Montecristi hats are highly prized today; the master weavers are rumoured to work only by the light of the moon or when the sky is overcast.

PANAMA HAT PRODUCTION ARRIVES IN THE ANDES

At the same time the authorities in Cuenca, high up in the Andes, opened a hat factory and later a training workshop in an attempt to alleviate economic problems. The authorities made apprenticeship compulsory throughout the region with the threat of prison for those who refused.

In 1845, Don Bartolome Serrano decided to invest heavily in the industry in Cuenca, purchasing hat blocks and other tools of the trade. The industry in Cuenca developed quickly and the weaving of panama hats became one of the most lucrative economic activities in the region.

At the same time as Serrano was setting up his production in Cuenca, Manuel Alfaro, a Spanish businessman, settled in the town of Montecristi. Alfaro soon realised the economic potential of the toquilla hat setting up his own chain of production from the straw plantations to the weavers.

The toquilla hat soon began its conquest of the United States. In the 1800s, unlike Ecuador, Panama was busy with passing travellers crossing the isthmus and astute businessmen took the hats from Ecuador to this market. From 1848, prospectors heading for the Californian gold fields passed through Panama picking up hats on their way to protect themselves from the heat. 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 Montecristi panama hats a year. Alfaro’s son, Eloy, entered the family business and guided it to even greater heights, using proceeds from hat sales to help finance the Great Liberal Revolution in Ecuador in 1895. . The Liberal Revolution is seen as marking the birth of modern Ecuador, bringing in freedom of speech, civil marriage, the right to divorce and the right to a free and secular education.

All of the hats exported at the time 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, and even beyond to Asia and Europe. As a result, the hats started to become known by the name of their international point of sale, rather than their place of origin.

 

A LIVING HUMAN TREASURE

In the late 19th century, a Catholic priest introduced a wide variety of Guatemalan palms to Bécal, a small Mexican town in the state of Campeche, bordering current day Yucatán. Local Mayan people began weaving straw hats and other craft items from the fibres. The result produced hats almost identical to the renowned Panama hats and, in homage to their Ecuadorian origins, the local people called them jipijapa hats or jipi hats.

Due to the extreme heat of the Yucatán Peninsula, the palm fibres would become rigid above ground. As a result, the town of Bécal has more than 2000 caves which have been dug by the weavers. These caves provide a damp, humid atmosphere in which the fibres become pliable and more easily woven. Production is almost identical to Ecuador, except a conch shell is used to smooth the weave into shape around the wooden block.

We visited Don Eulogio Chi Tzel in Bécal, a master craftsman of jipijapa hats. The following year he was recognised as a “living human treasure.” He is one of two exponents of Maya Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Campeche region to receive this accolade. This title is awarded in recognition of their work of creation, recreation and transmission of knowledge and techniques that have been inherited, and that strengthen the identity of their communities and enrich cultural diversity.

Don Eulogio weaves his fine hats in an underground cave in his garden, out of the heat of the sun. He told us “I don’t make money. It’s the commerciantes who make money“. There were four cooperatives of weavers, but they weren’t successful and have all closed.

THE PANAMA HAT MISNOMER

Frenchman Philippe Raimond, living in Panama, exhibited the toquilla hat at the 1855 World Fair in Paris. The hat garnered attention for its appearance, strength and durability, in fact, the catalogue even mentioned a hat made from ‘straw cloth’ and he 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.

In the 19th Century and work started on the Panama Canal. The conditions under which the workers had to dig the Panama Canal were difficult. It was hot and humid and the sun was their worst enemy. Engineers and workers were provided with hats for protection from the sun. This reinforced the association of the Ecuadorian toquilla hat with the country once the workers returned home with their hats from Panama.

However, one photo, taken on November 16, 1906, is often credited as the origin of both the name and the fashion. The photograph showed US President Theodore Roosevelt wearing a black-banded straw hat as he sat at the controls of a 95 ton steam shovel during a 3 day inspection tour of the Panama Canal excavation site.
The picture was published in the New York Times and a number of other newspapers around the world, prompting much comment on the President’s ‘Panama’ hat. He continued to wear his hat when he returned to the US. At this stage, the hat was so inextricably linked with Panama that the misnomer stood very little chance of being rectified.

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 alongside Clarke Gable in Gone with the Wind, Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King, whilst writers such as Mark Twain, Graham Green and Truman Capote have all praised and worn the hats.

Today, you are just as likely see someone wearing a Panama at a music festival as you are whilst watching cricket at Lord’s, or at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This is partly due to endorsements by A-list Panama hat wearers like Will Young, Keira Knightly, Kate Moss and Johnny Depp, as well as increasing recognition of the practicality and timeless style of the world’s favourite sun hat.

Since 1992, Pachacuti has worked to preserve and encourage traditional hat weaving skills in Ecuador.
By ensuring just remuneration for our weavers, ensuring sustainability and training a new generation in weaving techniques, we hope to ensure the Panama hat remains a fashion icon for many years to come. In 2012 UNESCO declared that the art of weaving a Panama hat in Ecuador would be added to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Intangible Cultural Heritage is a term used for knowledge, traditions and rituals which permeate the everyday life of a community, passed down through generations and forming an intrinsic part of their identity and culture.

However, despite our best efforts and the UNESCO designation, the continuing exploitation of weavers by middlemen means that this timeless skill is under threat. We have heard desperately sad stories of our weavers’ children paying coyotes, human traffickers, to take them on the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico, across the border to the United States, lured by the American dream. Others are abandoning traditional rural skills for a life in the city. Meanwhile, the market is flooded with cheap imitations masquerading as Panama hats; in reality they are made from paper or other fibres which don’t have the flexibility and durability, let alone the centuries of heritage, of a true Panama hat from Ecuador.

Panama hat weaving is more than an art, more than a skill, it is a way of life and represents the cultural heritage of entire Ecuadorian communities, from the heights of the Sierra down to coastal villages.   Will the art of weaving sombreros de paja toquilla die out, or can hat weaving provide a sustainable form of income to enable men and women to remain within their rural communities, keeping families together, and passing on their culture and traditions? This remains to be seen.