The iconic Panama hat entered public consciousness by gracing the heads of cherished film stars like Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart. But did you know that the Panama hat actually originated in Ecuador and is called the toquilla straw hat? Reclaiming its heritage has recently become a hot topic for artisans campaigning to change its name to reflect its true origins.
The most popular urban myth claims it all began with a slip of the tongue made by President Theodore Roosevelt. During a 1906 visit to the Panama Canal, Roosevelt was photographed wearing a toquilla straw hat, a popular accessory amongst canal workers due to its sun-protective qualities.
Legend has it that despite its Ecuadorian provenance, Roosevelt mistakenly referred to it as a “Panama hat” and the misnomer stuck. But, according to El Mundo , this is fake news as there are photos of him wearing a toquilla hat before his Panama trip, as well as references to the “Panama hat” in the press over 50 years beforehand.
These hats are made using fibers of the Carludovica palmata , a.k.a. toquilla palm, which thrives in tropical areas of Central and South America. In pre-Hispanic times, indigenous Ecuadorians were recorded weaving toquilla hats by Spanish conquistadors. By the 1630s production was centered around Manabí, on the coast of Ecuador, where they were also called Jipijapa or Montecristi hats. The cultivation and production process has evolved over centuries, thanks to a specific social organization which has survived generations. Even today, a high-quality Montecristi hat can take up to eight months to make.
The production of a high-quality Ecuadorian toquilla hat, more popularly known as a Panama hat, can take months. ( jorge / Adobe Stock)
The connection with Panama came about thanks to the family of progressive Ecuadorian president José Eloy Alfaro Delgado. In the early 1800s his father—Manuel Alfaro—settled in Montecristi, Manabí, an area with a history of making toquilla hats. He established a profitable business by transporting the hats to Panama and exporting them worldwide.
A more plausible explanation for the hats being known as “Panama hats” is that during the 1840s gold rush , they became popular amongst prospectors traveling to California via Panama, and from there the fashion spread to U.S. laborers. By the 20th century, toquilla hats were Ecuador’s number one export.
Today only about a fifth of all toquilla hats are actually made in the Montecristi area, while most are made in Cuenca, in Ecuador’s southern Andes. Despite the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat being recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage, hat makers bemoan the incorrect naming of their iconic hat. One change.org petition, titled “ This is Not a Panama* Hat ,” implores global retailers to stop using the wrong name and instead call it the “Ecuador Hat” to protect this age-old tradition from copycats.
Top image: Man wearing iconic “Panama hat,” which is actually an Ecuadorian toquilla or Montecristi hat. Source: Steve Cukrov / Adobe Stock