Author Peter Mayle, in Acquired Tastes, his trot through the world of the rich and the things they like to buy, described it thus:
“I could have carried my ignorance to the grave if a friend – knowing of my interest in anything preposterously extravagant – hadn’t told me about a hat that cost $1,000. But not a solid, indestructible, waterproof, lifetime investment of a hat. This was a mere straw hat.
“Who would be lunatic enough to pay out four figures for less than three ounces which you hardly knew you had on your head?”
He was referring to the Panama hat. White, lightweight, breathable, the perfect headgear for the tropics – and not necessarily as expensive as the one Mayle referred to.
This world being the contradictory place it is, Panama hats did not originate in Panama. They come from Ecuador, where people have been plaiting them from the leaves of the touqilla palm for some 400 years.
The hats were exported via Panama (hence the name) to the US, gaining popularity during the California gold rush in the mid-19th Century.
When the Panama Canal was being built some 100 years ago the hat received a big boost to its international reputation. Workers and managers on the massive project discovered that this was the most comfortable shield from the tropical sun.
From the lowliest worker with a spade to US President Teddy Roosevelt driving a massive steam shovel during a visit in 1904, if you were at the Panama Canal, that’s what you wore.
Although Panama-style hats are made elsewhere (China in particular), Ecuador is still the only place to get the genuine item.
Price varies with quality, the best being the rare Montecristi Superfino, which supposedly can be rolled up tight enough to pass through a wedding ring. Why anyone would want to do that is a mystery.
Panamas can be rolled up and slipped into a pocket, though frequent rolling doesn’t do an awful lot of good for the shape. That said, if it starts to rain while you’re wearing your Panama, it’s probably better to roll it up and stuff it into a dry pocket. A wet Panama is, frankly, a dead Panama.
The good news for Phuket is that you don’t have to go to Ecuador or Panama to get one of these classy tropical essentials. In a variety of styles they can now be bought from Thailand Panama Hats. The company is run by long-time Phuket resident Jorge Dela Torre Koch – who is himself from Ecuador. Of course.
Prices are a lot more reasonable than the one Peter Mayle bought for himself – they range from B2,500 for girls’ hats to B3,500 for a traditional Fedora or Gambler style. See thailandpanamahats.com