Learn About Theodore Roosevelt’s Love of Panama Canal Fashion

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States of America, was an influential leader. He was a charismatic, competent president who was actually quite the trendsetter. Teddy bears, a toy that gained popularity during his early 1900s presidency was actually named after him. He also played a big part in naming another popular item still used to this day: the Panama hat.

President Roosevelt Goes to Panama

As a president, Roosevelt focused the US’ overseas ambitions on the Caribbean, especially on the areas that had a bearing on the defense of his project, the Panama Canal. This cross-country canal in the newly independent nation of Panama created a direct route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. It’s considered the biggest megaproject in history, and it was a big deal for the American government.

The Panama Canal proved to be an essential component to expanding global trade routes in the 20th century. It also allowed the US Navy to rapidly move back and forth from the Pacific to the Caribbean and European waters.

Roosevelt was the first president to visit abroad for his inspection of the Panama Canal. He used his natural ability to drum up publicity by posing for photos at the Panama Canal construction site in 1906. Photography was relatively new at the time, and the president wasn’t shy to use the press to his advantage. Photos of his visit to the site showed a robust and rugged leader fashionably dressed in light-colored suits and straw fedoras, which later became known as the Panama Hat.

How the Panama Hat Got its Name and Roosevelt’s Contribution to It

Panama hats, despite their name, actually came from Ecuador. Panama hats are hand-woven in Ecuador by craftsmen from the cities of Montecristi and Cuenca. Members from the Alfaro family started exporting the hats in the late 1800s, using Panama as a point of departure to the rest of the world.

Since the Panama Canal was being built, the hat makers saw a big business opportunity: a better location to sell their hats. Ecuador wasn’t a commercial nor a major tourist destination, and it doesn’t have a lot of people passing through it on their way to somewhere else. That rings true until today. So, they decided to sell it there.

Panama was the point of land separating the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, and since air travel wasn’t available back then, people rode ships to Panama to cross the other side. Anyone on the East Coast of Canada or the US who wanted to go to the West Coast takes a ship to Panama, cuts across the isthmus, and gets on another ship on the other side to anywhere on the West Coast. It’s a better mode of transportation than traveling over land or taking a ship around the tip of South America.

Since Panama gets a reasonable amount of traffic, the business of selling hats there is good. When the gold was discovered in California, more people passed through Panama. People on the way to the goldfields and returning home from the goldfields buy the hats. And when people are asked where they got their nice hat, they say “Panama.” The hats don’t have a “Made in Ecuador” tag, so people assume they are from Panama. Ecuador’s most famous export was misleadingly but inevitably called a “Panama hat.”

Another major contributor to the misnomer was the Panama Canal. Workers at the canal construction often wore hats, which showed up pretty well in black-and-white news photos during their day.

Theodore Roosevelt’s photo ops at the Panama Canal included a photo of him wearing a black-banded straw hat as he sat at the controls of a steam shovel during an inspection tour of the Panama Canal excavation. This photo was widely published in the United States and the rest of the world, prompting a lot of comments on the President’s “Panama” hat.

Facts About the Panama Hat

The Panama hat is incredibly fashionable and useful, as it’s light and keeps your sun off the face in a stylish fashion. It’s also a perfect souvenir for a loved one back home if you’re traveling to and from Panama. Besides the fact that it’s not actually from Panama, here are some more facts you may want to know:

The hat is made from toquilla straw.

Toquilla straw comes from the leaves of the toquilla palm, which grows native to the Ecuadorian coast. Farmers cultivate the toquillales and harvest the stems before separating the fiber from the outer skin. Then, it is boiled to remove the chlorophyll (green pigment) and dried for bleaching. Using the fiber, weavers produce the crown, pattern, and brim of the hat. They complete the process by washing, bleaching, oven treatment, ironing, and pressing.

It can take months to complete a fine Panama hat.

A waver can take about one to three days to complete a standard Panama hat, but the finest Montecristi hat can take up to five months to be finished. Weaving a Panama hat is a skill passed down from generation to generation, hence the long hours dedicated to weaving.

Not all Panama hats are created equal.

Grading exists in making Panama hats, but it varies by seller. A seller’s grade 10 can be different from another’s grade 10. The quality of a Panama hat is determined by different factors, mostly the straw and the weave. The finer, more identical, and more evenly colored the straw is, the better the quality of a hat gets. Also, the denser and the more even the weave is, the better the quality of a hat.

The finest Panama hats come with more than 2,000 to 4,000 weaves per square inch, taking the hat maker months to produce a single hat. Considering the skill and time involved, these hats don’t come cheap.

Panama hats are available in different sizes.

When identifying Panama hat styles, you need to pay attention to the brim and the crown’s size and shape.

Panama hats are available in the following styles:

  • Fedora – the most popular style. It rose to fame during the 1940s, as it became the hat of choice for stars in classic films like Casablanca and Key Largo.
  • Optimo – the classic Panama hat style, which is called “natural” in Ecuador. It became popular among British travelers while traveling to tropical countries like India, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. The Optimo is more common in the UK than in the US.
  • Monte Carlo – the original planter style immortalized by Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. It has a brim that turns upwards and is usually called the “Gambler” style.

The finest Panama hat ever woven was worth around $100,000.

The finest Panama hats that are handmade with excellent straw and even weave will cost a lot – from $25,000 each – due to the craftsmanship and attention to detail.

Brent Black, the world’s leading designer of fine-quality hand-woven Panama hats from Ecuador, commissioned the finest Montecristi hat ever woven. It took a master weaver five months to weave and four more weeks for five more artisans to create parts to finish it.

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