Somewhere between a clichéd fedora and an old-timey boater cap sits the Panama hat, which can somehow do beach or city without looking out-of-place—or trying-too-hard—in either setting. Its magic: It can deliver some tomboy edge to any getup, and it’s been doing so since the 1600s. Read up on its 400-year backstory, below. —maura brannigan
The Origin: First, let’s get to the bottom of that name: The Panama hat as we know it doesn’t actually get its start in Panama, but rather, in Ecuador. As early as the seventeenth century, straw hats—a hot commodity in Asia and Europe—are shipped to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing off to their final destinations overseas as a total marketing gimmick—because the term “Ecuador hat” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The Evolution: Once the California Gold Rush hits the West in the 1850s, the American demand for Panama hats skyrockets. Why? Many of the movements’ miners travel through the Isthmus of Panama en route to California, picking up a hot new accessory along the way.
And now the U.S. government gets on-board: President William McKinley orders the purchase of thousands of ‘em to combat the hot-weather fighting conditions during the 1898 Spanish American War.
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt visits the construction site of the Panama Canal and is photographed wearing the local headwear.
Call it the Teddy Roosevelt Bump, because shortly thereafter, Panama hats become a movie-wardrobe staple. Casablanca, anyone?
As the decades wear on, political bigwigs—including another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano—begin showing up at fancier events in the hat. In an era without A/C, the style is a way for a dude to keep his melon cool.
The silver screen’s all over it. The hat makes prominent appearances on Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Paul Newman in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge—but no women…yet.
That is, until a fresh-faced Sigourney Weaver appears in the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously as a British embassy officer who has a tumultuous love affair with Mel Gibson in Indonesia. Her accessory is practically a costar.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, women really get in on the fun. Check out this epic pic that ran in Italian Vogue during that time.
The Right Now: Panama hats earn themselves a particularly impassioned 2013 blog post by the Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine. She becomes the unofficial-official patron saint of the style, which does the rounds at the spring 2015 New York Fashion Week shows (and on sidewalks everywhere this summer).
Lots more where this came from! Click, click.