The history of the Panama hat is one of legends and wonderment.
The Indigenous Origin
When the Spaniards arrived in what would later become Ecuador, they met indigenous people who wore special-shaped hats. Those hats were so fine and translucent that the Spaniards rumored that they were made of vampire skin!
The hats were actually made of “toquilla”, a straw that grew (and still grows) exclusively on the coast of Ecuador. The settlers later adapted the hats to the European taste. The Panama hat was born.
The Panama Canal
The name is a misnomer. The Panama hat has always been made in Ecuador, never in Panama. But during the construction of the Panama Canal, the workers wore those hats imported from Ecuador to protect their heads from the sun. Furthermore, the shipments commonly passed through Panama for transportation to port cities in the United States and Europe. The hat then came to be wrongly associated with Panama.
In 1904, US President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal and was photographed wearing his Panama hat. The hat popularity suddenly skyrocketed.
The Celebrities’ Favorite Hat
During the 20th century, the Panama hat came to be known as one of the finest headgear one can wear. It was proudly worm by star movies and other celebrities. Still today, Panama hats are often being worn by world celebrities such as Sean Connery or Amal Alamuddin.
In Thailand, Montefino's Panama hats are proudly worn by Singto Numchok and Pop Areeya, among others.
And the Tradition Continues
Today, Panama hats are adapting to contemporary fashion. There are Panama hats in all colors, shapes, and styles. But despite all the changes and creativity, toquilla hats are still woven by hand in small Ecuadorian communities. In 2012, the Ecuadorian art of straw hat weaving was added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List.