Thursday, April 24, 2014

Forget Panama, it's an Ecuador Hat

The Ecuador Hat
By Russell Maddicks
Beach or street, a well-designed straw hat is the ultimate in chic Summer headgear. Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Shakira, Beyonce, all the A-listers have sported a "Panama hat" in the past, but how many people know that this timeless style item is completely misnamed and actually comes from Ecuador?

The success of a recent hashtag campaign in Colombia called #itscolombianotcolumbia got me thinking. How come after so many years people are still calling a style of straw hat made in Ecuador the "Panama hat"?

It seems to me that we owe it to the thousands of hardworking artisan weavers of Ecuador that we fight against this historical misnomer, raise awareness, and win back Ecuador's rightful place in the Iconic Headgear Hall of Fame.

That's why I'm starting my own hashtag campaign: #EcuadorHatNotPanama  

Origins of the Ecuador Hat

Headgear has been made in Ecuador from fine, soft, but very strong paja de toquilla (toquilla straw) for thousands of years.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1531, they marvelled at the skill of the indigenous weavers, who wove the straw so tight that it would keep your hair dry in a tropical downpour but was light and airy enough to keep your head fresh in the Equatorial heat.

As the straw was found mainly in Jipijapa Manabí, that's where production first began in the Spanish colonial period and after 1830 under the new Republic of Ecuador it flourished.

Ecuadorian President Eloy Alfaro (1842–1912) came from the village of Montecristi, just outside Manta, in Manabí and made his fortune making toquilla hats.

The finest-quality Montecristi hats, the ones most sought after by connoisseurs, are called montecristi superfino and are woven by hand to exacting standards.

Eloy Alfaro exported his fine straw hats via Panama and it was there in the 19th century that the problem over the name began.  

The "Panamanization" of the Ecuador Hat

Workers on the Panama Canal and the US engineers working alongside them found the light, Ecuadorian straw hats perfectly suited for hot, sweaty work in harsh conditions and they became very popular.

The international boost for the hats came after US President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing one on a visit to the Panama Canal in 1904 in a picture that was reprinted in newspapers all over the world.

Suddenly, anybody who was anybody wanted a "Panama hat". The style went global and has remained a classic summer essential ever since.

The downside for the Ecuadorian producers is that the Panama name stuck.

I still find it odd to come across signs in Ecuador stating: “Se vende Panama hats” (“Panama hats for sale”), even in Montecristi.

Production today 

Workshops in and around the UNESCO World Heritage city of Cuenca now get the most passing trade form tourists as they are easily reached from the city.

if you don't have time to visit Montecristi or the mountain weavers around Cuenca, a great place to see how the hats are made is the Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (Toquilla Straw Hat Museum) in the centre of Cuenca or the Museo Magia del Sombrero (Magic of the Hat Museum) run by the prestigious hatmaker Homero Ortega P. & Hijos, which is located on Avenida Gil Ramírez Dávalos.

A Hat for Life

Light, hardwearing, and cool to wear, a hand-woven Panama hat will last a lifetime.

The true test of quality is the tightness of the weaving—so tight that it will hold water. Resist the temptation to screw the hat up to see how well it holds its shape or pass it through a wedding ring as many travel guides suggest.

Unless it's a really expensive hat, this will just ruin it. 

But whether you haggle over a $4 straw trilby sold at a Quito market or head for a stylish hat shop like Homero Ortega P. & Hijos in Quito's Plaza San Francisco and shell out $400 for a Superfino Montecristi that took four months to make, an Ecuador Hat is an essential purchase.

So come on! Join the campaign. Tweet this blog post with the hashtag #EcuadorHatNotPanama and follow me on Twitter