People call it the world’s most perfectly crafted hat, one long appreciated by aristocrats, world leaders, stars of stage and screen, and performers of every ilk, from pop music stars to sumo wrestlers. The Ecuador Panama hat became the rage in Europe after visitors saw it at the 1855 Paris World’s Fair. In 1906, a photo of Teddy Roosevelt, appeared on the front page of newspapers around the world, as he inspected his country’s progress on the Panama Canal’s construction. Like everyone else, he was wearing a Panama hat. The shot proved instrumental in popularizing the hat, and as with many products, the building of the canal also opened new markets for this must-have accessory.
After that, a whole succession of American presidents wore them, up to and including Harry Truman. Neither was the Panama hat a phenomenon only among American leaders. Even Napoleon Bonaparte wore one during his forced retirement years. Khrushchev wore his during a lot of public appearances, including the opening of Egypt’s Aswan dam.
Of course, the Panama hat was bound for Hollywood. Bogie wore the Panama hat well as did Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall. After the fifties, the hat faded from the screen though not entirely. In Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice, set at the turn of the century, both by the aging composer, Gustav von Aschenbach, and his young, androgynous obsession, Tadzio, wore the timeless hat, bringing the hat to the attention of new audiences.
Frederick Douglass wore the plantation-style Panama hat in Haiti after being named to represent the United States government there in 1889. The flat-topped boater style Panama hat, a popular style from the late 19th century until about 1950, found its way into art in such paintings as Renoir’s 1881 “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.”
At one end of the spectrum is the real deal, purchased in fancy shops and custom-fit to its buyer; at the other, handsome hats that one may purchase on the street during travel to Ecuador. It is a matter of very fine, no so fine and everything in between. Sure you could join the fashionistas by buying a Panama hat at home or over the Internet, but why would you if you ever plan to travel to Ecuador or take a Galapagos Islands cruise?