Will the Real Panama Hat Please Stand Up

For over 150 years Ecuador’s prized export, the “Panama Hat” has been attributed to another country. The interesting fame these hats have cultivated result from the incredible history Ecuador has in producing some of the oldest known straw hats.  The actual, Ecuadorian name for these hats is “paja toquilla”, a name you can become accustomed to hearing more in the future.

In the mid 19th century, Panama was a lively trading spot, circulating an international array of goods amongst the opportunity seekers that gravitated there.  Ecuador’s masterfully woven hats became popular with gold prospectors and canal builders alike, who hailed from far reaches around the world.  This mass cultivated the name that would become a fixture in public discourse after it premiered at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris as the “Panama Hat”.

Since its first big entrance into society, this hat has developed an unsurpassed reputation that continues to this day. The quality and durability of the tightest woven “Panama Hats” allows them to command the highest price, tens of thousands of dollars for the most esteemed, by high caliber hat makers such as Brent Black’s Panama Hat Co of the Pacific.

That this illustrious commodity is attributed to another country could vex any nation that was robbed of credit.  Early in the 20th century, Ecuador attempted to clear up the matter, sending out an international telegram to consulates, “All Panama Hats are made in Ecuador”.  This provoked the haughty response, “We hear that you are now making Panama Hats in Ecuador.”

The curious stamp “Genuine Panama Hat made in Ecuador” can be seen as a polite jab at worldwide disregard for Ecuador’s declarations of ownership.  Weavers and other countrymen are obliged to use the misnomer for which they are secretly famous when talking to foreigners.  Yet amongst themselves, they refer to these hats by the material used that bears the nickname “paja toquilla”.

Like the majority of Ecuadorians, paja toquilla is of mestizo origin, deriving from the plant, ages of crafting it, and the influence of the Spanish colonization of the people.  Paja toquilla has been developed into hats in coastal Ecuador for over 6000 years. As long ago as 4000 BC, Valdivian cultural remains display ceramic figures wearing pointed straw hats.

The start of paja toquilla’s international reputation began when the Spanish conquistadors adopted the hats, praising their lightness, cooling properties and even the ability of the tight weaves to hold water.  The colonizers made record of Ecuador’s tradition, writing of the broad wing like hats of locals, calling them toquillas, after a Spanish word toca, a kind of headdress.

Ecuador’s long history wearing hats continues today in the quotidian dress of indigenous peoples up and down the Andes that split the coastal region from the jungle. Most of the styles are now European in origin due to the Spanish conquest, a brutal period in Ecuador’s history during which factories for straw hat production were set up in the Southern sierra around the city of Cuenca where the conditions were best for weaving the material.

With the development of ecotourism, Ecuador is growing in popularity abroad for its diversity and colorful creative culture.  Might Ecuador take this opportunity with a campaign for an appropriate name?  We can help start the trend by ourselves calling  them paja toquilla hats and subtly work to set the record straight.

to see our current spring styles visit www.oloverhats.com


One Response

  1. Great to learn all this! I love wearing my hat. Hope to see you on the 3rd. Ellen

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