"If there is anything I can trust is my eyes" Olga Fisch

The Panama Hat History: An Icon of Style and Elegance throughout history

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Posted on October 12 2013

“I cannot conceive of a hat- made of straw- woven by the hand of a man, more beautiful than this one. I hold it in my hands still in awe of its maker.  Before the ribbon and leather sweatband were added, it weighed less than a letter on my stationary.  I feel the brim between thumb and forefinger. I’ve turned book pages that are thicker than this.” -Brent Black. Journalist-writer and Panama Hat specialist. Light- weight, delicate, flexible, yet strong and resistant.  No wonder the Panama Hat, is one of Ecuador’s most world acclaimed handicrafts!  This is because it is a display of exquisite craftsmanship which has become a symbol of masculine elegance for over a century around the world.  Besides, it has a tight relationship with events in Ecuador’s history. Ancient origins Since Pre-Colombian times, the Panama hat fiberhas been interwoven with Ecuador’s history.  As early as 500-1500 a.d., coastal ethnic groups such as ManteñoHuancavilca, and Manta were already familiar with weaving the fine fiber extracted from the Paja Toquilla palm.  There is some archeological evidence in ancient ceramic and stone figures found in Guayas and Manabi Provinces, in which masculine figurines wear a primitive “head protection” on their heads. Though this theory needs further study, the fact that the home of the best Panama Hatweavers is precisely in this region, gives more support to this hypothesis. A fiber with a royal name In the 17th century creole weavers (Spaniards born in the Americas) began to learn from the coastal natives. They saw them using this palm with long leaves shooting out from the ground; for roofing, basket weaving, and making fans. Thus, the creoles developed a simple hat which they called ‘toque’ hence the name Paja Toquillawhich is the common name of the palm.   However, in the 18th century, Spanish scientists baptized the palm with a more elegant scientific name, Carludovica palmata, in honor of King Charles the IV of Spain and his wife Luisa. Montecristi hats begin to travel abroad By the 19th century the Paja Toquilla hat, (known as montecristis or jipijapas) had become a must for Ecuadorians in the coast. Plantation owners and plantation workers a like, saw this light-weight, and supple hat as essential protection from the scorching equatorial sun. When did the montecristis begin to travel abroad? It was a shrewd Spanish merchant, living in Montecristi, Ecuador, named Manuel Alfaro who realized the hat’s potential. He began to export them for the use of California Gold Rush workers and became very wealthy! In fact, his son Eloy Alfaro also continued to expand the family fortune through hat exports. He was later to become president of Ecuador and it is said he financed much of his liberal revolution through these sales.  Yet it was in 1855 in the Paris World Fair that the hat was launched to world-wide prestige. “The hat did not even mention Ecuador as a participating country…. The French man Philippe Raimondi, arriving from Panama, where he lived, presented the toquilla hat in France for the first time….The fineness of the texture did not cease to impress Parisians, despite their reputation as demanding costumers, and the catalog of the World Fair mentioned a hat in ‘straw cloth’!  From then on the montecristi began to be known as the Panama Hat.  Its fame grabbed a hold of Europe and never left the high fashion scene. The Panama Canal It was 1904 in the hot, damp and mosquito-infested construction sight of one of the world’s most amazing engineering projects: the construction of the Panama Canal.  The United States continued, where the French left off.  The entire world had its eyes on the building of the Canal, and photos of workers wearing the airy and comfortable montecristi hat were shown in the world press.  It was images of President Theodore Roosevelt inspecting the Panama Canal which truly brought the hat to the limelight, and firmly established the montecristi as the Panama Hat forever. A laborious creation process To create a great Panama Hat is no easy task!  There are several complicated steps, and each one is equally important if the final product is to be of high quality. First, in the villages near Montecristi, there are specialists in cultivating, buying and preparing the fiber. Sheaths of immature leaves or cogollos are gathered in bundles. Then, they must be skillfully separated into thin strands which must be cut and submerged under water for around 6-7 hours in order to make the fiber flexible.  There are several other steps which the palm must undergo, in order to ensure the quality of that which will become a fine hat.  When it reaches the hands of expert hat makers in villages such as Pilé, the plant needs to remain wet in order to be malleable between the artisan’s nimble fingers.  Many expert hat makers only work at dawn or in the evening so that the hot sun will not dry up this precious raw material. According to Panama Hat expert Martine Buchet: “Though each montecristi is unique, the successive stages remain the same. At the start, (the artisan) creates the rosette, the center of the crown; this is made with eight fibers in a tight lattice. As the weaving proceeds, new straws are added to enlarge the circle and bring the crop up to the desired size.  This part can be done in a seated position… when the end of the crown is completed; the piece must be placed on a form which is itself set on a tripod stand, after which the work is carried out on an upright weaving position.”  This is a long, uncomfortable and painstaking process. Then, the artisan has to have a good eye to make a fine brim for his hat. It usually takes about a month to make one Panama Hat!  Although some finos and superfinos can take up to six months!   Once the basic hat is complete, it usually goes to Montecristi where another artisan will give the hat its “final touches.” If the result is to be an exquisite hat, the process requires skill, patience and in the last stages, creativity.  For this reason the Panama hat has become a coveted item around the world. An Icon of Masculine Elegance In the 1940’s Panama Hats had become a symbol of masculine elegance around the world. Therefore, it became one of Ecuador’s main exports during this time! Political figures such as Winston Churchill, Gustavus V King of Sweden, Krushev, and President of Ecuador Galo Plaza often wore one during international events.  Film stars also helped glorify the Panama Hat.  For example, Visconti’s famous movie “Death in Venice” showed scenes in which the main characters wear the hat.  Paul Newman also flaunted it. Today, Brazilians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians often wear the hat for classy occasions. From Pre-Columbian times, to the Ecuadorian Liberal Revolution, to the making of the Panama Canal, themontecristi has witnessed important historical events. It is valued because it must undergo an arduous elaboration process, and is considered refined, yet comfortable and practical. For this reason, even though it is misnamed as the Panama hat, it remains an elegant ambassador of Ecuador to the rest of the world. A few tips to finding a quality Panama hat:
  • The quality of the hat is measured by the fineness of its weave and the rows in its crown
  • Though Cuenca also makes beautiful hats, the montecristi should not be confused with straw hats made in Cuenca.
  • The texture should be thin and smooth
  • Look at the weave through a magnifying glass
Sources: Buchet, Martine. Panama: A Legendary Hat. Paris:Editions Assouline. Tamariz  de Aguilar, María Leonor. Tejiendo la Vida “Las artesanías de Paja Toquilla en el Ecuador”, CIDAP. http://www.sica.gov.ec March 2008 www.edufuturo.com March 2008 Personal Interview: Miriam Gonzalez, Maqui Crafts, Quito, March 2008.
Buchet, Martine. Panama: A Legendary Hat.  Paris:Editions Assouline.
Tamariz  de Aguilar, María Leonor. Tejiendo la Vida “Las artesanías de Paja Toquilla en el Ecuador” ,  CIDAP.
Buchet, Martine
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