Why you should care
Because it’s one of history’s greatest fashion misstatements.
Looking like the forefather of Colonel Sanders in a spiffy all-white suit, Teddy Roosevelt sat at the controls of 95-ton Bucyrus steam shovel, surrounded by baffled laborers. Flashbulbs popped as photographers and reporters jostled one another to get better access to the American president as he posed for a photo-op while doing his rookie best to help dig the Panama Canal.
Unlike fried-chicken kingpin Sanders, though, the president had decided to pair his suit not with a string bow tie or to shield himself from the tropical sun with a Stetson. Instead, the former Dakota Territory rancher wore a lightweight, black-banded straw hat, inadvertently popularizing one of fashion’s greatest misnomers.
As people continued to make their way west to the California gold fields, things were looking distinctly golden for the Panama hat.
Easy-breezy Panama hats aren’t from Panama — they’re Ecuadorian, and Roosevelt’s appearance in 1906 wearing the distinctive accessory at the Big Ditch in Panama went a long way to perpetuating an erroneous moniker that had been around for a while. As Tom Miller notes in The Panama Hat Trail, the straw toppers had been named “for their point of purchase rather than their place of origin” for more than half a decade prior to Roosevelt’s trip to Central America. But what’s the pre-Panama story of this iconic headgear?
The original name of the comfortable, casual accessory is sombrero de paja toquilla (basically, “straw hat”). Thanks to savvy marketing, most people now associate the item with the seaside Ecuadorian town of Montecristi, but Panama hats have been produced along the Ecuadorian coast since the 16th century (when pressed on where the best versions come from, Miller name-drops Pile, not Montecristi). Regardless, the original and the best (read: pricier) versions of the country’s most iconic, if misnamed, artesanías have fallen out of favor of late, undercut by Chinese knockoffs. Back in the mid-1800s, though, the OG hats were all the rage.
At the time, Panama was part of New Granada, today’s Colombia, and was the “major trading post for South American goods,” explains Miller. Ecuadorian hatmakers took notice of Panama’s geographical advantage at the skinny crossroads between Atlantic and Pacific and began exporting their headwear to the isthmus 1,000 miles north, according to Brent Black, a leading specialist and maker of Montecristi Panama hats.
Once the California gold rush got underway in 1848, the Ecuadorians’ decision to use Panama as a trading emporium began looking like a highly lucrative stroke of luck, as thousands of forty-niners picked up the straw hats on their way across Panama en route to California.
By 1850, the speedy path across the isthmus was outstripping the competition — that is, traveling cross-country prior to the transcontinental railroad or sailing around stormy Cape Horn at the tip of South America. As people continued to make their way west to the California gold fields, things were looking distinctly golden for the Panama hat; business continued to boom.
This spike in sales in Panama, combined with exports to the East Coast and Europe (and, consequently, shipping documents emblazoned with the name Panama) is how the misnomer really caught on, according to Black. After all, when proud Panama hat owners were asked where their hats came from, were they really going to say Ecuador? Unlikely.
There is a sticking point in this tale of celebrity pull and panning for gold, though. The term Panama hat predates all the aforementioned events. Peter Simple, a novel serialized in 1833, rather frustratingly refers to “large panama [sic] straw hats.” With the author no longer available for interviews, notes Black, the mystery of how the phrase made its way into an English adventure yarn is likely to endure, along with the perennially popular straw fedora.
Despite fashion’s most persistent misnomer having been (perhaps accidentally) hit upon more than 65 years prior to Roosevelt’s turn-of-the-century appearance, the Panama hat will forever be associated with this former U.S. president, typically canonized as a man of action and known meddler in Central American foreign policy. Who’d have thought we’d ever be able to add OG celebrity influencer to that list?