Friday, March 20, 2009

A big stick might have been part of Theodore Roosevelt’s shtick, but his Panama Hat spoke decidely more about the 26th president’s style...

If one were to compose a list of U.S. Presidents notable as much for their panache as their politics, the least likely to appear on such a roster would be Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, for all his likable rotundity and seeming unconcern on matters of dress (his greatest passion was spending days in the jungle), credit is due our 26th president for popularizing what is universally considered a men’s wear classic: the Panama hat.

Of course, insightful as he may have been, Roosevelt would probably have been as surprised as anyone in being heralded as a trendsetter. The story goes that on a November day in 1906, during a three-day tour of a construction site at the Panama Canal, Roosevelt was photographed behind the wheel of a huge steam shovel, dapperly donning his Panama. Almost immediately after the photographed was published in newspapers across America, men began sporting these lightweight, woven hats, which were becoming available thanks largely to enterprising sailors who brought Panamas back home by the bale and sold them at U.S. ports.

Considering the circumstances leading up to the fashion for Panamas, it is easy to understand how these hats got their name. What else would sailors and latter-day forty-niners crossing the isthmus en route to California and points east and south call them? But in truth, Panama hats have never been made in Panama and almost certainly never will. Rather, the hats have always been made exclusively in tiny villages throughout Ecuador, with some also crafted in Colombia and Peru, just the way it's been done for the last 300 years or so. Sadly, no one ever bothered to set the record straight by naming the hat correctly; not even the Ecuadorian Indians whose handwork very likely went into the Panama worn by President Roosevelt.

The Panama may well be the most often copied hat in the world. But to be the genuine article, it must be made either in Ecuador, Columbia or Peru because the name, technically, applies more to the type of weave and material than to the style. In fact, the actual weaving process is a craft that has been handed down from generation to generation of South American natives. A single Panama can be made in as short a time as three days or can take as long as three months. Cost-wise, a single hat can be as low as a few dollars or as much as $5,000. It all depends on the quality.

Construction begins with a special fiber from South American palm leaves called toquilla or jipijapa. The leaves are gathered and dipped in boiling water, allowed to dry and then shredded and bleached with sulfur. And while it is best for these strips to be woven while still moist, the weaving process never takes place underwater as romantic legend would have one believe.

The finesse of a high quality Panama hat is determined by the number of concentric rings or "vueltas" as they are referred to by those in the know, that fan out and around from the hat's center. The finer the straw strips and the tighter the weave, the more "vueltas" the finished hat will have. About seven ring strands make up an ordinary Panama, while 15 or even more constitute an exceptional one.

The benefit of all this painstaking craftsmanship and micro weaving resulted in a finished Panama so soft and supple it can be rolled and crumpled like a handkerchief and stuffed in a back pocket, only to spring back to its original shape looking no worse for wear. Legend has it that a certain Panama was once made so tightly woven that it could literally be pulled through a man's wedding band. True or not, it is a part of the noble hat's lore.

For staving off the sun's rays in spring and summer, nothing beats a light and airy Panama. Apart from its many stylish virtues, it is a highly functional accessory to a warm weather wardrobe. Because it is soft and lightweight, a Panama will repel the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays with negligible discomfort to the wearer since air easily passes through the fine weave, leaving the head cool yet protected. The wide brim on certain models provides a spectator with needed shade at sporting events such as tennis or golf tournaments.

A well made Panama is often difficult to find, so ordering one in advance from a reputable hatter is advisable, although waiting time can be as long as three months for one that is made in South America. When shopping for a fine Panama, it is important not to be put off by certain imperfections either in the weave or shading of the straw. These hats are handmade and always naturally colored. They should feel deceptively lightweight and be as smooth yet slightly textural as linen. Only the machine-made copies will appear flawless in color, shape and texture.

A straw trilby or fedora makes for a perfect first summer straw hat

Most Panama imitations these days are made in China and sell for under $200. But a genuine one will cost upwards of $500, the best of which will bear the stamp, "Made in Ecuador" that is burned into the inside of the hat. The best of the best Ecuadorian Panamas is the Monticristi, which comes with a certificate of authenticity.

Various styles of Panamas have wavered in and out of style since the turn of the century. Most classic is the Optimo, which is easily recognized by the tall, full-shaped crown and telltale ridge or crease down its center. Roosevelt favored this model, as did Warner Oland, who portrayed Charlie Chan, along with the devilish Sidney Greenstreet, who managed to wax sinister in his so often that for a time the style was named after him. For a lightly dressier look, there is the porkpie, characterized by a short triangular crown, meant to be properly pinched in front, and a narrow brim. The large plantation style shades the sun best and remains the hat of choice for taking in tennis or croquet matches.

It is fitting, somehow, that an American president be held accountable for the popularity of the Panama hat. Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all, did wonders for the military-inspired blouson jacket and Jimmy Carter rendered the chambray work shirt chic. And, sartorially speaking, even Roosevelt would have agreed that a ivory, natural straw Panama hat is an infinitely more appealing accessory than a big stick.

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