Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Panama Hat

by Ki Hackney

The Panama hat: This legendary light colored, warm-weather hat has been the preferred topper of some of the world’s sexiest men and some of the most influential. Late night movie buffs will easily recall the sensual glamour of Clark Gable, Sean Connery, and Fred Astaire, Broadway’s Noel Coward and Flo Ziegfeld, and even Anthony Hopkins, as the villainous Hannibal Lechter, wearing their Panamas. Historically, international politicos have done as much or more to popularize this classic hat.

Steven Tyler; Sean Connery; Winston Churchill; Charlton Heston; FDR; Sigourney Weaver.
As legend has it, the news photograph of Teddy Roosevelt, perched on a Panama Canal steam shovel in his Panama hat triggered the fashion for these featherweight coolers. Add to those, the images of Winston Churchill, FDR, and Harry Truman, even Nikita Kruschev, in their Panamas. And Napoleon III’s wide-brimmed version. Some of the more recent fans include Sigourney Weaver, Whitney Houston, Charlie Sheen, Steven Tyler, Jimmy Smits and quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

Teddy Roosevelt and Paul Newman
Of course, Panama hats don’t come from Panama. They got their name, because Panama was the great trading center, where most of these hats were bought and sold. Panamas may come in a variety of shapes, often overlapping other styles, such as the Fedora or Derby, with a variety of brim widths. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, wore the Optimo style with its rounded crown and characteristic ridge down the center. Ultimately, however, the name has come to encompass all woven, light-colored hats with a dark band at the base of the crown.

Some Panamas come from Colombia and Peru, but the very beset and the finest, are made in Ecuador. The finest Ecuadorian Panamas are made in the town of Montecristi. “By definition, a Montecristi hat is hand woven,” says Steve Singer, president of Hartford York, a six-year-old mail order hat specialist that offers a broad range of the best from around the world, sending catalogs to 2.5 million customers and selling at least 40,000 hats each year. Montecristi Panamas are handmade by a handful of craftsmen with the skill to weave these fine hats.
Using a tradition dating back to the Incas in the 1500s, all Ecuadorian Panamas are made from the fibers of the toquilla palm. The fronds are picked apart by hand. “Master weavers actually collect the palm fronds themselves and painstakingly split the fibers,” says Singer. The results are remarkably fine, densely woven products that feel like the finest silky linen. The finer the fiber, the finer the grade and the fewer the hats. Each craftsman can make only 3 to 5 of the very best superfino hats a year.

Singer himself wears one of his $1000 Panamas in the classic, pinch-front Fedora style and says the he sells a lot of $700-$1000 Panamas and has purchased the entire production of one of the master craftsmen, known as Simon.

" He is the best,” says Singer, “and he will custom-make the special Panama that Hartford York is offering this year.

Working in partnership with Brent Black hat makers in Hawaii, the company that takes the raw hats from Ecuador and shapes, sizes and blocks them to fit each customer, Hartford York is offering a $10,000 Montecristi Masterpiece, which is among the finest ever woven and boasts a toquillo straw “thread” count of 1600 threads per square inch. While the price sounds over the top, it is not unlike a group of Ecuadorian showcase Panamas offered by Dobbs, the Fifth Avenue hat shop, that the The New Yorker discussed in an article in the July 3, 1930 issue.

JH in Palm Beach with his version of a Panama hat
That article was the inspiration for Singer’s $10,000 Montecristi Panama. “We have just introduced it and haven’t sold any, yet,” he admits. But the purpose behind such an extravagant work of art is as philanthropic as it is commercial.

Singer’s goal is to sell enough $10,000 Montecristi Masterpiece hats to support this dying, indigenous art form and to provide funding for the Montecristi craftsmen so that they can also attract and train a future generation of Panama hat weavers.

Hartford York