A Panama hat is a type of flat, wide-brimmed straw hat manufactured from the fronds of Carludovia palmata, the Panama or toquilla palm. The hats became popularized outside of Latin America during the building of the Panama Canal, during which a number of workers wore them to protect themselves from the elements. Today, hats in this style can be found for sale all over the world at varying levels of price and quality, and make an excellent shield from the sun.
The origins of the Panama hat actually lie in Ecuador, where the Incas first made straw hats from palm leaves, making improvements on the design of the hats worn by the Conquistadors. The hat came to be known as a toca, a word derived from the Spanish word for hat, and the palm came to be known as a toquilla palm. In some parts of Latin America, the Panama hat is still better known as a sombrero de paja toquilla, "a hat made from toquilla straw," or simply as a paja toquilla.
During the construction of the Panama canal, enterprising hat sellers started to make the paja toquilla available to workers, and it quickly became a popular part of the working uniform, thanks to the shelter it provided from the brutal tropical sun. Workers referred to the hat as a “Panama hat,” because it was far less of a mouthful than the Spanish name. When Theodore Roosevelt was photographed at the controls of a massive piece of construction equipment wearing a Panama hat, the design took off in the United States and in Britain.
Many connoisseurs of straw hats believe a well-made Panama hat to be the finest of all straw hats, as the straw is bleached and woven with a tight, even grain that repels mild rain and intense sun or woven in lacy, elegant patterns. Two towns in Ecuador, Montecristi and Jipijapa, dominate the trade for high-quality Panama hats, and some manufacturers have discussed seeking an origin appellation for Montecristi hats in recognition of their outstanding quality. Depending on the sturdiness of construction, a hat can range in price widely, with some famous hats selling for large sums of money.
Typically, these types of hats are worn formally with tropical weight clothing such as linen slacks and jackets, and many Latin American workers wear Panama hats with their field clothes, informally. Men tend to wear Panama hats more than women, although some weavers do make hats designed specifically for women, with curvier brims that complement the female face and head. Many iconic figures including Winston Churchill, Humphrey Bogart, and Harry Truman were seen sporting Panamas, and the style will probably continue to endure as long as people are willing to weave them.