It's Time to Channel Jay Gatsby in a Panama Hat

·4-min read
Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

We’re deep into summer (apparently), so there’s a high chance you’re in need of a little summin’ summin’ to shield your eyes from the sun. Here at Esquire, we’re toying with the idea of buying a Panama hat. No, seriously, what better way to dandify your balcony breakfasts and daily coffee runs than with a new accessory?

If you need a reminder of the Panama’s timeless appeal, we’ll just throw a few iconic cultural moments out there for you: Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces of January (2014), Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal (2001), Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby (1974) and Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1963).

Photo credit: Paramount
Photo credit: Paramount

Granted, most of these characters highlight the Panama in its mid-century heyday, with smart pairings like linen suits, silk ties and maybe a gold signet ring. But don’t let that put you off. Olie Arnold, Style Director at Mr Porter, has good news for the tentative hat-wearers out there: “The Panama is a classic hat that has been a go-to style for the best part of the last century, and with good reason," he says. "It has the benefit of generally looking good on most guys.” How, exactly? You might ask. “Well, they lend an air of sophistication to outfits, so can easily complement a smart casual look, as well as tailoring."

If you’re finding that hard to picture, mentally scan your wardrobe and imagine topping your seersucker camp collar shirts with one at a BBQ, or going beyond ‘suited and booted’ at a summer wedding. Menswear by nature has only the subtlest of details to differentiate with, so standing out from the crowd is the easiest way to up your style game.

Photo credit: StudioCanal
Photo credit: StudioCanal

What is a Panama hat?

But, first, in order to find the best option for you, it helps to understand exactly what exactly constitutes a Panama hat. Spoiler alert: most people don’t know.

The important thing to note is that the ‘Panama’ part refers to the straw weave, not the shape. These hats are made in a manner of different styles, including the Fedora (you’ll know that one), Optimo (rounder with a seam splicing the middle), Trilby (with a shallower brim) and Planter (with a flat, dipped crown).

Secondly, this accessory actually originates from Ecuador. It was first exported from Montecristi to Panama in the 17th century, where it soon caught the eye of American miners travelling through during the Gold Rush years. They were both aesthetically pleasing and practical: perfectly designed to protect Panama’s canal workers from the beating sun.

It was all down to the naturally cooling fabric (made from the Paja Toquilla plant, indigenous to the coastal regions of Ecuador) and weaving technique. This intricate process is now considered a dying art and in 2012 was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Today, bespoke options like our Lock & Co selection can take up to nine months to make.

In the late 18th century, the US government were ordering these ‘sombreros’ in bulk from Ecuador, and by 1906 they were a firm favourite among English aristocracy – including King Edward VII. The hat’s popularity was cemented in 1906, however, when a photograph of Roosevelt wearing one on an official visit to Panama Canal excavation was printed in the New York Times.

By 1944, Panama hats were Ecuador’s top export. Go figure.

Photo credit: VW Pics - Getty Images
Photo credit: VW Pics - Getty Images

How should I care for my Panama hat?

This is a question you probably won’t ask yourself until your precious Panama emerges from your hand luggage – and don’t blame budget airlines for their one bag on-board rule – a little worse for wear. It’s important, though, so listen up:

“It’s fairly easy for a delicate straw hat to lose its shape and break if not cared for properly," says Arnold. "Look to store your Panama in a hat box or, alternatively, stuff the crown with tissue paper and pack in a plastic bag. Keep it in a cool dry place: the fibres can dehydrate and crack when exposed to heat for too long.”

The Best Panama Hats to Buy in 2021

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