How to Buy a Panama Hat : The definitive guide to choosing the perfect Panama hat.
How to Buy a Panama Hat
The definitive guide to choosing the perfect Panama hat.
For 300 years the Panama hat has been the quintessential summer hat. Expertly handwoven, they are a superbly practical art form that protects your skin & frames you elegantly. If you think you dont look good in hats, the truth is you have never owned a good one.
Finding a Panama specialist in your city is very unlikely, as there are only a few of us. Your local hat store will have a couple of basic styles but the choices will be very slim. So you need to take the plunge and look online - take your time and find the hat that you love. When you find it, it will be a true friend, bringing you more freedom, joy and good attention than you could imagine. Thats why I love hats.
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 how you wear and care for it. The hats wick moisture away from your head, evaporating it and cooling you down. When you take your hat off it will dry out, and in the process shrink a little. It may take a year, but it will shrink.
Ideally you order a hat 1cm larger than your actual size, and insert a spacer to make it fit perfectly until it shrinks. If you are likely to get really sweaty then allow 2cm. Your hat will ship with a packet of spacers, ensuring you have a perfect fit. If it is a little big, you can easily adjust it, but a little small is like tight shoes.
Measuring your head is easy. Place a string or tape measure around your head above your ears, where you would wear your hat. 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.
CHOOSE A REAL HATMAKER
Most of the online sellers are just shipping product - they have never fitted or worked with Panama hats. It is obvious they 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 fine Italian shoes. To make stylish hats, you need to have style.
People often travel to Ecuador hoping to pick up a great hat at a great price. However the best hats are exported, and the Ecuadorians are renowned for their beautiful spirit, not their dress style. So, they fly home with a cheap hat, that's a bit freaky and no longer fits their head.
As designers we know what works - getting the crown, brim and quality just right so that it looks good every time your wear it.
GRADING & QUALITY
Weavers split the Panama straw with specialised 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 a full year to finish.
Every manufacturer has a different grading system. One company's grade 8, is another grade 4. There is little 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 no bargains, and no short cuts. Buy from a reputable hatmaker.
THE TRUTH ABOUT ROLLABLE PANAMAS
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, breaks your hat and leaves the brim all wonky. Traditionally the top of the hat must have a centre fold, which looks rather unattractive. Some people make them rollable by bleaching them until they are like rubber, but they don't hold an elegant shape. A superfino Montechristi will roll pretty well, but in the end you will have a broken $1000 hat. The Truffaux Riviera, Provencale and Tiara are an unblocked crown and will roll OK. Some of the robust weaves can roll well , such as the Crochet Casablanca & the Metropolitan. If you are incredibly rich, or just like broken hats then sure, you can roll a Panama.
THE GREAT SWEATBAND DEBATE
Panama hats are sometimes lined with a reeded leather sweat band. When you wear one, you sweat like crazy and it leaves a red mark across your forehead. They look & smell great, but it will shrink and hurt you. 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 - not to put in a box at the back of your cupboard.
BRIM WIDTH & PRACTICALITY
Short brims (trilby) are easy to wear, dont blow off in the wind and you can keep them on your head when you are driving, sitting, dancing or jogging. They are jaunty, cheeky and light hearted. Widebrims (fedoras) are more elegant and give a little 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 really easily.
One of the reasons I am a hatmaker is that I am rather fair and can't wear sunscreen on my face. We walk a lot in the forest, and at the beach and even with a 4.5cm short brim I never get burned. I remember reading that 90% of ageing is caused by the sun (EPA, 2012). It is no surprise that a lot of people want a large brimmed hat to ward of the ravages of age, skin cancer and painful burns. Unfortunately as your brim gets bigger, so does the parachute effect of the wind upon your hat. Any brim wider than 7cm will need a chin strap at the beach. Sad but true. The other thing with a wider brim is that you can't wear it in your car, and you will take it off when you are inside. Which means it gets lost, crushed, left in taxis, soaked at the bar or some cretin steals it. If you can keep your hat on, it will last forever - and so will your skin.
CHOOSE THE HAT THAT SUITS YOU
Your hat needs to match your face shape and your build. A little short brim hat on a big guy looks ridiculous, as does an enormous sun hat on a petite woman. The one basic rule is that the width of the top of the hat (the crown) should match your jaw. If you have a big square jaw, then get a big square hat. If you have a heart shaped face, then go for a soft centre dent crown like the Casablanca. If your face is very 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 someone know exactly what will work.
IS IT A GENUINE PANAMA?
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 okay, 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 it 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 a just a style of white hat. In the past the 'Panama' name was carefully protected, but with the advent of the internet, everyone is calling any hat a Panama, which makes things a bit tricky. Work with a reputable hatmaker and you won't have to worry.
IS IT WORTH THE EFFORT TO BUY A REAL PANAMA?
If you want a hat that feels sensuous to wear, garners innumerable complements and makes you look beautiful, then yes. If you have seen people walking around looking stunning, they are not wearing a plastic hat from the local drug store, they are wearing a real hat.
Panama hats are made from the fruit of the Earth, they are 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.