With the warmer months of summer comes the need to dress cool. Lightweight cottons, linens, lairy Hawaiian shirts, swim shorts, deck shoes and espadrilles suddenly appear on city streets and seaside boardwalks.
But finding an individual style to lift you above the sartorial herd can be hard. The answer, sometimes, is a hat. Although, too often they’re an afterthought and sadly mostly look that way too. Shapeless floppy sun hats, tired old baseball caps and straw trilbies put paid to any thoughts of a stylish summer.
Luckily there is one that saves the day. The Panama hat brings an elegant boost to any summer outfit, however casual or formal. It adds a sense of real style to those sunny days, providing not only protection from the sun’s rays, but also an additional something – a welcome eccentricity, perhaps.
The Panama has been around for a long time, but how do you wear it without looking like an extra from Downton Abbey? Where did it originate and can it really be a warm-weather essential in a casual world where sportswear reigns supreme?
Selecting And Wearing A Panama Hat
Here’s a question: what do Benedict Cumberbatch, David Beckham, Mick Jagger, Anthony Hopkins, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill and JFK all have in common? The answer of course is that all have worn a Panama hat.
Mick Jagger, 1973
Until a few years ago hats were effectively dead. Few men wore them. Yet from the 19th century to the 1950s it was rare to be seen out without one. A fur felt fedora or homburg for autumn and winter and a straw Panama hat for spring and summer would be part of every man’s wardrobe. Now they are returning to popularity as men realise how a well-chosen hat can add style and personality to a look.
The traditional Panama is a fedora-style hat shaped with a central dent in the crown which is pinched at the front, with a variable width brim and made from creamy toquilla straw. But they vary in style and must be chosen carefully to suit your face shape.
Prince Charles during the British Royal Tour of Australia, 1994
A good hatter will help you choose a style and decide on quality and a colour to suit you. Sophie Dallison of Laird Hatters says, “When someone walks in looking for a Panama – we would usually ask if they are buying with an occasion in mind, whether they are looking for a traditional bleached white/black ribbon combo or a natural straw colour. A tan Panama tends to look more casual but you can easily dress it up with a suit.”
A good option is the racing trilby shape, says Dallison, “which sits between a trilby and a fedora in terms of brim width, and it looks fantastic on men and women alike.”
David Byrne of Talking Heads, 1982
How To Wear A Panama Hat
Does Your Face Fit?
Horses for courses is the rule here. Not all hats for all face shapes. Personal stylist, Sarah Gilfillan of Sartoria Lab often buys hats with her clients and advises, “A larger brim will suit a large man with a round face and a smaller brim will suit someone of a smaller stature.
“If you have a round or square face select a hat with a lighter coloured, or narrower hat band. This makes the hat appear taller which will add some length to your face shape, so it won’t appear squashed by your hat”. Try on a few different styles and get used to wearing him.
Look Beyond The Classic
Many hatters offer styles beyond the classic cream coloured fedora style, which can carry a whiff of the drunken cricket fan. If you prefer a less restrained look, go for a hat with colour and less traditional shapes, such as a trilby (with narrower brim and high crown). Wear something that will offer a fresher look in terms of shapes and colours.
Allon Zloof of Tom Smarte likes to find variations on the classic roots of the design of his hats, playing with both colour and shape. “Traditionally, the Panama hat was always made in the classic wide brim fedora hat shape in a natural colour with a black ribbon”. However, brands are starting to design hats “in not just the classic natural fedora [shape] but also in the trilby and pork pie styles in a combination of colours and more contemporary ribbons”.
Go For Quality
So the Panama can be found in all manner of shapes and colours, but what about quality? Zloof says: “There are different grades of Panama hat, which differ according to the fineness of the weave. The tighter, narrower weave is much lighter and more flexible, but requires much more time and work to create, which results in a higher cost”.
A good quality hat will, when properly looked after, last much longer than the cheaper alternative, so the investment will pay off eventually. A high quality rollable hat can be more easily stored for travel, too.
Wear The Hat, Don’t Let It Wear You
The great thing about the Panama hat is that most can be worn with anything. It will embrace both a sophisticated Riviera style with a linen suit and cream buckskin shoes as well as a very casual beach look complete with swim shorts and Hawaiian shirt. Whether you’re at The Derby or Glyndebourne, a beach wedding or a summer festival, a barbecue or a city pub, there is a style to fit you. The world is your oyster in a Panama.
How you wear it makes a difference though. Place it flat on your head for a conservative look, or throw it on at an angle for a jaunty look – but go carefully; you don’t want to look as if you’ve over-imbibed at the beach bar. Above all, wear it with confidence and purpose, like you’re not giving it a second thought.
Fit For Purpose
Like any item of clothing, a Panama hat will look best when it fits properly – which in turn ensures it’s not going to blow off with the faintest of breezes. The hat should fit comfortably without you having to jam it on your head to make it stay put. On the other hand, it shouldn’t move around or feel as if it’s too loose, either.
“I see too many men picking up a hat that is too large or too small for them, usually because the range of hat sizes offered on the high street is too narrow,” says Zloof. “Take a tape measure, find out what head size you are and then choose your hat accordingly.”
5 Key Brands For Panama Hats
The combination of its sumptuous jacquard silk band – made in Devon – with the fine llano weave make for a fedora that is refined and sophisticated. It’s handwoven by skilled fair trade producers from Carludovica Palmata with straw grown near the coast of Ecuador. A high quality rollable panama hat at a fair price, wear it to Henley, Glyndebourne, the Derby or Wimbledon or with shorts to the beach.
This is hand-crafted in Tom Smarte’s UK workshop using the finest weave from the Ecuadorian toquilla plant. Lightweight, yet sturdy, it features a centre dent, a high pinched crown and an accentuated brim at the front for optimal balance between sun protection and style. Such quality deserves to be worn with a cream linen suit to a sophisticated summer event, but with board shorts on the beach at Fistral will do fine.
This straw fedora is a fantastic summertime hat and offers something a little different. Lightweight and airy, it is perfect for the warmer months and is made from seagrass, giving it plenty of characterful texture. Made in the UK, it’s suitable for a day-to-day wear or a casual event – slightly more relaxed in style, it’s one for that Hawaiian shirt, although it would go equally well with a linen blazer and chinos.
Christy’s is one of the few brands that has a hat factory in the UK. It imports its Panama hat hoods directly from Ecuador before they are shaped, blocked and finished by hand in the UK to the highest traditional standards. The cross weave offers a hat that’s slightly different, perhaps a little more casual, although it would be ideal for a beach wedding or summer party.
Marks & Spencer
Not strictly a Panama hat, this offers an affordable alternative to those on a budget or who tend to leave their hats on trains or accidentally sit on them. This hand woven straw hat is lightweight, allowing plenty of airflow to keep you cool in the sun. Matched with some sunglasses and a T-shirt, it makes a perfect addition to your casual wardrobe.
The History Of The Panama Hat
Although often mistakenly called a straw hat, the Panama itself is misnamed, as the genuine article originates in Ecuador rather than Panama.
Mark Rogers of Pachacuti, who works with Ecuadorian women to make hats ethically and sustainably, explains, “The Panama hat should be called the Ecuadorian hat as it originates from Ecuador, but it was first traded out to the world from Panama during the 19th century, consequently given the the misnomer. The hats are hand-woven by artisans from the toquilla straw (carludovica palmata) which grows in the coastal region of Ecuador. It’s hats woven from this fibre that are traditional Panama hats.”
Paul Newman on-set of the film ‘The Long, Hot Summer’, 1958
Dallison of Laird Hatters agrees about the origins of the true Panama and adds, “You can judge the quality of a Panama by its weave, its colour and the quality of the blocking. The weave is a determining factor – the finer the weave is, the more expensive the hat will be. Montecristi is famously known for its fine weave, with party-trick ability to roll and fit in a wedding ring. That being said there is no standardised grading system – it’s down to each producer to grade its range so, a word to the wise, be wary of Montecristi hats being offered at lower prices”.
American novelist Winston Churchill in New York City, 1916
And exactly how is a Panama made? It’s a predominantly handmade object, as Rogers explains, “First the leaves of the toquilla plant are harvested and boiled to remove the chlorophyll and then dried. The grass is then passed into the weaver’s hands, who will then split the long leaves into smaller and thinner fibres depending on the quality of hat they wish to weave. The weaver then begins the laborious process of weaving the hat which can take anywhere from a day for a standard weave sun hat to 3-4 days for a fine rollable hat. Hats like our incredibly fine connoisseur hats can take weeks to weave.”