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
PANAMA HAT PRODUCTION ARRIVES IN THE ANDES
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
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.
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
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.
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.