This hat was created by craftsmen of Ecuador, not Panama: why then is it called “Panama” (8 photos)

Category: Fashion, PEGI 0+
1 December 2023

Every beach lover is probably familiar with the legendary Panama hat. The name history of this iconic Panama hat dates back to the mid-1800s. But despite the exotic name that has made Panama hats a global fashion sensation for nearly 200 years, these hats do not actually originate in Panama.

Few people know that the hats known as "sombreros de paja toquilla" or "toquilla straw hats" were actually created by weavers and traders in Ecuador, not Panama.

But why then do Panama hats have the name of a place whose origin has nothing to do with it?

A short excursion into history

Ceramic figurine of a man wearing a hat, created by Indian tribes living in modern Ecuador, dating back to 1200 BC.

The documented history of the famous Panama hats can be traced back to (at least) the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors first took notice of the beautiful headdresses worn by the Incan Indians in the region now called Ecuador.

However, the real history of these hats goes back even further, if you look at the found figurines of many Indian tribes that lived in the territory of modern Ecuador.

The conquistadors wrote that Inca hats were made from palm-like plants called toquilla, which grow on the coast of Ecuador. And the production of these hats was strictly related to the lunar cycle.

Each month there comes a time when the fibers of the plant become very dry, making them ideal for harvesting and turning into a popular accessory.

Craftsmen made straw hats by hand, painstakingly weaving the fibers together. The process of weaving a hat could take anywhere from 1 day to 8 months, depending on the quality of the particular hat.

Hats with many weaves, made from thin straw of a uniform color, are considered the highest quality, but they also took several months to weave.

Manuel Alfaro's hat business

It was not until the 17th century that these rather complex weaving techniques used to create these hats eventually gained worldwide popularity.

A visionary and entrepreneur named Manuel Alfaro, a native of Ecuador, was the first to see the potential in the elaborate hats of his homeland to create a highly profitable business targeting (primarily) foreigners.

After Ecuador became independent from Spain, Manuel Alfaro settled in the town of Montecristi in 1835 and founded a hat-making business based on local weaving traditions, using his own plantations and the hand labor of local people, to whom he paid good wages.

How did Panama hats get their name?

A little later, his son, Eloy Alfaro, looked at the map and noticed that 1,000 km to the north, a relatively short boat ride away, was Panama. At that time, it was a real gold mine, because a huge flow of miners from the east coast of the United States came through Panama, wanting to take part in the California Gold Rush in 1848-1855.

Therefore, Eloy soon decided to engage in the massive export of hats from Montecristi to Panama and built a real family business there.

During the California Gold Rush, getting to California was not so easy. So the prospectors crossed the Isthmus of Panama, connecting Central and South America, on their way to California, and during this short pass they bought unusual hats en masse from the Alfaro family for their journey, escaping the intense heat.

When producing the hats, the Alfaro family's stores did not label them "Made in Ecuador," so the inevitable result was that people simply nicknamed the hats "Panamanian" because foreigners bought them primarily from that region.

Theodore Roosevelt wearing his favorite Panama hat

Soon rulesThe US government even purchased 50,000 Panama hats from the Alfaro family for soldiers during the Spanish-American War, and then several thousand more for construction workers building the Panama Canal.

On November 16, 1906, US President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing a Panama hat while visiting the Panama Canal construction site. And all this gave a step towards the popularization of these hats among American bohemia.

American film actor Clark Gable wearing a Panama hat, often called the “King of Hollywood” of the 20th century

Soon after the US President was photographed wearing a Panama hat, all prominent figures wanted to get their hands on at least one copy of this hat.

Such famous Hollywood actors as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Paul Newman actively began wearing these hats and popularized them among real fashionistas and prominent artists of the 20th century.

Since then, the Panama hat has become part of the wardrobe of any self-respecting fashionista. And even today, Panama hats remain popular among many celebrities, including actors Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem.

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