Why Are Panama Hats Not Made in Panama
Panama hat history is not all it seems. At least not as far as Ecuador is concerned. Panama hats have long been an important part of Ecuador’s craft industry and an invaluable source of US dollars, but panama hats are not part of Ecuadorean culture in the way that champagne is for the French or chocolate is for the Swiss. Both France and Switzerland export more champagne and chocolate than they consume, but their local consumption is impressive and it is this passion for their own produce that underpins their export success.
For panama hats and Ecuador the story is very different. It all started in the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors landed on the cost of Ecuador and immediately began coveting the straw hats worn by locals. However, these straw hats bore little resemblance to today’s panama hats. The hats covered the ears and necks, more like the hats worn by nuns at the time in Europe. Shortly after their arrival the Spanish colonialists set about redesigning the hats for the European market, creating what we now know as the panama hat.
In the mid-1800s panama hats were popular with people heading to the gold rush through Panama (one reason for calling them panamas) and with visitors to the World Fair in Paris in 1855, which were exhibited by a Frenchman who had visited Panama (another reason for calling them panamas). Thousands of panama hats were used to protect workers who built the Panama canal in the early 1900s (yet another reason why they were known as panamas) and by the mid 1900s they were a firm favourite with the increasingly affluent and style conscious Americans and Europeans, who were seeing the hats featuring in many of their favourite movies (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind etc).
And all this time Ecuadoreans continued to make, but seldom wear, panama hats. This is despite the fact that Ecuadoreans are big hat wearers. They have to be as the sun is so strong. So what hats do Ecuadoreans wear? As you can see, they mainly favour the felt trilby, but from time to time they have to make do with whatever comes to hand.