Despite being one of the most iconic symbols of Panama, the Panama hat in fact originated in Ecuador. Straw hats in what is today as known as the “Panama style” became an essential part of daily wear for Ecuadorians in the mid-1800s. However, as Ecuador was not a popular economic or tourist location, clever distributors realized they would have more success by taking their creations up north to the region of Panama (which back then was part of Colombia).
Panama hats became extremely popular during the Gold Rush, as thousands of people traveled across Panama trying to make their way to California. The lightweight hats were perfect to endure the harsh cross-continent journey and the long workdays under the Californian sun and as such became a cherished item. Their popularity increased even more during the construction of the Panama Canal which had workers use them on a daily basis. During this time, the Panama hat also became a fashion statement, when President Roosevelt was seen wearing one and then wore them back in the States. Panama hats were favored by member of all social classes and even when hats stopped being worn daily, the Panama hat has remained one of the most popular all over the world.
The 30-minute documentary ”Weaving Life: The Story of Ecuador’s Panama Hat” discusses the history and present-day stories behind the world´s most famous straw hat.
In Panama, the Panama hat is a tradition born in the heart of the country, in the Los Santos and Veraguas provinces. One hat may take an entire year to complete as they are woven from millimeter-thick pieces of straw. Towns that produce such hats make their individual mark by weaving a specific design into the hat. Such hats can range in quality from 100 weaves per square inch to up to 2,000.