The definitive guide to buying a Panama hat. Finding a Panama specialist in your town is very unlikely - there are only a few of us. Your local hat store will have a couple of styles, but the choices & quality will be very slim. You need to take the plunge and look online - this guide is all about empowering you to do this well.
1. Get your size right
Thousands of people have walked into our stores wearing a Panama hat that is too small. It is uncomfortable, unflattering and likely to blow down the street. What no-one will tell you is that all Panama hats will shrink. How much they shrink depends on the weave, and how it is used.
Ideally, you order a hat 1cm bigger than your actual size and insert a spacer to make it fit well until it shrinks. If you are likely to get very sweaty, then allow 2cm.
Your hat order will ship with a packet of spacers and instructions, ensuring you have a perfect fit. If it is a little large, you can easily adjust it, but small is like tight shoes - uncomfortable.
Measuring your head is easy. Place a string or tape measure around your head above your ears, where you would wear your hat. Please write it down and then measure it again. When you place your order, I will follow up and confirm your sizing - 99% of the time it will be perfect.
2. Choose a hatmaker not a box shipper
Most online sellers are just shipping product - they have never fitted or worked with Panama hats. They obviously don't even wear one, let alone understand how to style and finish them. The style of the hat is the most important thing. It is like the cut of a suit, the lines of a dress or Italian shoes. To make stylish hats, you need to have style.
As designers, we have learned what works so that it looks good every time you wear it. Our hats are engineered to hold their shape, last a long time and look good on your head.
3. Grading & Quality of Panama Hats
Weavers split the Panama straw using their long thumbnails. Each time they divide it, the quality of the hat doubles, and so does the time it takes to weave. The longer it takes, the more expensive the hat becomes. Some hats are thread fine and can take a master weaver six months to finish.
Every manufacturer has a different grading system. One company's grade 8, is anothers grade 4. There is no consistency in how they are graded, and comparison online is very confusing. If someone is offering a grade 8 for less than $400, then it is a trick. With handwoven hats, you get what you pay for - there are few bargains and no short cuts. Buy from a reputable hatmaker.
There is an enormous variety of weaves in the Panama hat world. Some like the Crochet Panama are extremely durable, and some like the Brisa are fine and delicate. Here is a short video on the types of weaves, their strengths and weaknesses.
4. The Truth about Rolling a Panama hat
When I talk to Ecuadorians about rollable Panama hats, they wince and shrug their shoulders. Though the Panama is famous for being able to rolled and put in your pocket, it is a bad idea. It cracks the straw, ruins your hat and leaves the brim all wonky. Some manufacturers make them rollable by bleaching them until they are like rubber, but they don't hold an elegant shape. A Montechristi will roll pretty well, but in the end, you will have a broken $1000 hat.
If you are incredibly wealthy, or just like broken hats then sure, you can roll a Panama.
5. The Great Sweatband Debate
Panama hats are frequently lined with a leather sweatband. When you wear one, you sweat a lot, and it leaves a red mark across your forehead. They look & smell great, but they will shrink and hurt your head.
I much prefer a grosgrain ribbon, which passes your sweat into the hat and is soft on your skin. It never shrinks and will leave your hair smooth and unruffled. It is also easy to wash in soap and water. Traditionalists may scoff at my lack of authenticity, but I make hats to wear.
6. Choose the right brim width
Short brims (trilbys) are comfortable to wear, don't blow off in the wind and you can keep them on your head when you are driving, sitting, dancing or jogging. They are confident, cheeky and light-hearted.
Wide brims (fedoras) are more elegant and give a more sun protection, especially on your neck. You feel dressed and elegantly framed. Super wide brims are more for style or extreme sun protection. Unfortunately, they also blow off easily.
One of the reasons I am a hatmaker is that I am fair and can't wear sunscreen on my face. I regularly walk in my forest, and at the beach and even with a 4.5cm short brim I never get burned. Ninety per cent of ageing is caused by the sun (EPA, 2012).
7. Find the hat that suits you.
Your hat needs to match your face shape and your build. There are four basic types of Panama hats, and choosing the right one will make a big difference. A little short brim hat on a big guy looks ridiculous, as does an enormous sun hat on a petite woman.
The simplest rule is that the width of the top of the hat (the crown) should mirror your jaw. If you have a big square jaw, then get a big square hat. If your face is heart-shaped, then a soft centre dent crown like the Casablanca will suit. If your face is long, choose a taller hat and so on. If your face is oval, then you can wear anything.
Buying a hat that suits you is much more important than the fineness of the weave or anything else. If you are unsure, then send me a photo. I love fitting hats, and when I see you, I will know what will work (email@example.com).
8. How to recognise a genuine Panama hat.
Often people will visit our stores wearing a paper or plastic hat, saddened they bought a fake Panama. Most of the Panamas online are either 'paper straw' or 'polypropylene'. While the paper hats breathe, they also fall apart if you sweat in them. The polypropylene (plastic) hats are the worst. They will last for thousands of years, but it's like wearing a rubber cap, making you hot, sweaty and very uncomfortable in the sun.
The easiest way to tell if it is a handwoven Panama is to look at the centre of the top. If the straw spirals out like the photo, then it is the real deal. If it is square, then it is not a Panama. Sometimes the hats will be hot iron branded inside the crown as proof of origin, but not always.
To most of the world, a Panama is just a style of white hat. Everyone is calling their hat a Panama, which makes things a bit tricky. Work with a reputable hatmaker, and you won't have to worry.
For a magnificent read have a look at a Glimpse inside The Workshops of the Worlds Finest Panama Hatmakers from the New York Times.
9. Is it worth the effort to buy a Panama?
If you want a hat that feels luxurious to wear, garners many compliments and makes you look beautiful, then yes. If you have seen people walking around looking great, they are not wearing a plastic hat from the local drug store. They are wearing a real hat.
Sure they are more work than a plastic hat, but so is a linen shirt, or a good pair of leather shoes. They are real things.
Crafted by Ecuadorian artisans, and they make the world a better place. Natural, comfortable, biodegradable and supporting the beautiful people of Ecuador - they are a taste of a long lost art form, that we obsessively design and style better than anyone on Earth.
If you are serious, then join me for an online fitting and I can answer all your questions. I really enjoy it, and it works things out quickly.