How Did the Panama Hat Get Its Name?

Panama hats are one of those hats that will keep the sun from your face. They are an incredibly stylish piece to any wardrobe, and they are a great souvenir because they are iconic in Panama. The Panama hat is over 100 years old; therefore, the name is meaningful, but how did it get it? 

The Panama Hat got its name because it became famous in Panama. Initially, this hat was built in a coastal region of Ecuador, and they became the first export business as they were shipped and sold out of Panama. Today, they are still very popular in multiple styles. 

This article will cover the history of the Panama hat and how the name came about, and what made the hat famous. Furthermore, we will cover a few facts about the Panama hat and the different styles you can buy today for various purposes and in many brands. 

A selection of Panama hats

History of the Panama Hat

Initially, the Panama hat can be traced as far back as the 16th Century. Spanish conquerors are the ones who noticed this headpiece on the native people of the land now called Ecuador. The Incas, a coastal region of Ecuador, were the first people wearing these hats made out of the Toquilla palm. 

In the 17th Century, the weaving used to make these hats grew in popularity. Manuel Alfaro was a visionary and started to see the trade potential in the hats. He set up a business in Montecristi, Ecuador, to trade these hats in Panama. This business plan made sense because miners from the United States were flowing through here for the Gold Rush. 

Only in the 18th Century did these hats start being called the Panama hat. These hats were attractive and very lightweight. The natives wore them to work the docks, which caught the American miners’ attention going through the area. They started to get the hats because they worked well against the sun throughout their journey to California. 

In 1906 a photo of President Theodore Rosevelt wearing a Panama hat in a Colonial style was published. It spread worldwide quickly, increasing the popularity of these hats on a global scale. Despite the popularity of the Panama hat, Ecuador citizens don’t like the name because it is misleading. 

A Few Facts About the Panama Hat

There are a few interesting facts that you may or may not know about the Panama hat that makes it even more fun. These facts include the hat’s plant, which makes the hat’s quality, and the cost of some of the hats. 

Toquilla Plant

The central fact about these hats is that they are made from the Toquilla straw. This straw is grown in the province of Manabi in Ecuador. The farmers harvest the stems and then separate the fiber from the skin. They then boil it to remove chlorophyll, and then it is dried. 

Using the fiber, the weavers will make a pattern that eventually turns it into a hat. The hat will then be bleached, oven treated, and pressed. Each hat can take up to eight months to make depending on the type and quality of the hat being made. 

Quality of the Panama Hats

Not all of the Panama hats are the same. Each one takes on a different quality, and it is dependent on two facts:

  • The straw used – The finer the straw and the more evenly colored it is, the better the hat quality. 
  • The weave used – The weave determines the hat’s quality because the better quality is, the denser it is.

There are several grades between one and twenty that manufacturers supply to the hats to determine the quality. This number is not a universal term that is recognized by all. 


The best quality Panama hat has ever woven had an estimated value of about $100,000 (approx. £76,002). It took a master weaver nearly five months to weave it and then five more weeks for the artisans to finish it. Discover more intriguing facts about Panama hats here.

Styles of the Panama Hat

There is more than one style of Panama hat that you can buy on the market today. Many have made their way onto the big screen as they are more popular than you might think. 

  • Fedora – The Fedora style is one that grew in popularity during the 1940s. It was the hat of choice for many on and off the big screen. It is still trendy today. 
  • Optimo – The Optimo is the classic Panama style. These hats are more prevalent in Britain and Asian countries. Today it is still more popular in the UK than in America. It comes in a variety of styles that make it very unique. 
  • Monte Carlo – The Monte Carlo was initially called the Planter style. It was immortalized when it appeared on Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind. Today, the most common version of this style is called the Gambler as a press shapes it, and the brim turns up. This Stetson gambler hat on Amazon is a very popular modern take on this classic hat.

There are a variety of brands of Panama hats:

  • The most common Panama hat brands are Tom Smarte, which isn’t made in Ecuador
  • The Laird Hatters which makes the Fedora
  • The Pachacuti has a specific weave called the llano
  • There is Christy’s, a factory in the UK, and Marks & Spencer, which is not strictly Panama hats but is one of their options. 

The Verdict: The Panama Hat Got Its Name From Travellers

The Panama hat is an iconic hat discovered in Panama by American travelers during the Gold Rush. The Americans named it the Panama hat because they only saw it in Panama during the time. However, the Panama hat is initially made in Ecuador, and it is an Ecuadorian hat exported to Panama for sale. 

The Panama hat is made from the fibers of the Toquilla plant, which goes through various stages to get it ready for weaving. There are different qualities of Panama hat that include how it was weaved and the plant’s quality. The most expensive Panama hat was a hand-crafted hat that was sold for a ridiculous amount of money. 

There are multiple styles of the Panama hat and these styles were each made famous by someone wearing them and going public. The most common style for formal wear is the Fedora style. This hat was made famous by a big-screen movie production that was very popular. 

Other famous styles include the Optimo, which was popularized by British expats in South American and Asian countries. It is still the most common Panama hat worn in the UK today. 

Another famous style is Monte Carlo. This hat was the one worn by field planters, and it is called the Planter style. It is known for its pressed brim, which turns up a bit. People like to dub this hat the Gambler.


The Panama hat has a misleading name because though the hat first gained popularity in Panama, it is originally an Ecuador hat. These hats are trendy because of the broad brim and the different styles you can buy them. These hats may have been initiated to keep the hot sun off your face, but now they are a real fashion statement. 

Many different popular brands are making Panama hats now that include the Fedora and the Optimo. The most popular Panama hat is the Gambler, which is a Monte Carlo hat that is characterized by an upturned brim. No matter how long these hats have been around, they continue to grow in popularity worldwide, making them a well-known hat.

Read this guide to the difference between fedora and gambler style Panama hats.