El único Panamá - Week 29

Welcome to our weekly series about the uniqueness of Panama!

Photos: Bob Hislop

There is a difference between the Panamanian Hat and Panama Hat!

One is crafted in Panama and the other in Ecuador. You will see both everywhere in Panama so what is the difference?

The traditional Panamanian hat is known as sombrero pintados or the painted hat. Worn throughout the country mostly by rural Panamanians and generally associated with the man of the field. It is also worn during popular festivals and presentations of typical Panamanian folkloric ensembles and ballets and used by both men and women.

The sombrero pintado obtained its name from the town of La Pintada in the Province of Cocle because they were woven there. It boasted of the only painted (pintado) house in the area over a century ago. The town was named after the house and the hat after the town.

The hand woven hats are constructed of natural fibers from palm trees. The Chisna plant is boiled with the fibers to give the dark colors. The hat is woven and sewn in a circle. Quality is determined by the number of times the braid circles the hat. If a hat has 15 or more rows it means a lot of time and effort went into the hat.

The Panamanian hat is a cultural symbol and a mood reflector depending on the fold of the wing. It can mean anything from success, intellect, a womanizer, mourning or protection from the sun. Touching or taking a man’s hat is one of the biggest disrespects to the Panamanian fields and cities.

The Panama Hat is stylish, versatile, functional and iconic, but one thing it is not – from Panama. The origins and legacy of the Panama Hat begins with the Ecuadorians who began weaving straw hats as early as the sixteenth century. Like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, the hats were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe. As a result they acquired a name that reflected their point of international sale, "Panama Hats", rather than their place of domestic origin.

Panama hats are made from a special straw, called toquilla in Spanish that is native to Ecuador. The quality of the hat is determined by the weaves per square inch, more weaves equals more luxury.

In the mid-1800s, the hats were picked up by gold seekers crossing the isthmus overland as they rushed to and from California. During the Spanish American War, in 1898, the U.S. government ordered some 50,000 of these hats from Ecuador for their troops heading to the Caribbean. During the construction of the Panama Canal workers wore the hat as they labored in the tropical sun. The hats were introduced to Europe in 1855 at the World Exposition in Paris.

The Panama Hat gained further popularity when President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States, in 1906 was photographed wearing the hat during a visit to the Panama Canal construction sight. The hats were also later worn by early-twentieth century film stars such Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper. Winston Churchill and Harry Truman were also pictured donning the Panama Hat.

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