The Basics of Buying a Panama Hat
- Najib Benouar
Here at Kempt HQ, we often receive letters from our readers—most of it adoring fan mail—but every so often we get a question from an inquiring soul who we feel the need to help. This week, we received a letter from a reader who was looking to buy his first Panama hat but wasn’t sure where to start.
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the Panama hat is the perfect summer accomplice. But before you take the plunge, you should know a few basics: these aren’t just any straw hats—they’re hand-woven toquilla straw (from Ecuador, not Panama). It’s not all fedoras; there are a handful of classic styles to choose from. And you’ve got a major decision to make—whether you’re going to roll it or keep it crisp.
Allow us to expound on these three tenets of buying a Panama hat.
You’re best off if you can stop into a local hat shop. It turns out that hat sizes aren’t as universal as one might imagine. (You can’t just look at the tag of your fitted baseball cap.) If you’re shopping online, make sure to measure the crown of your head and match it to the individual sizing guides of each hat.
Remember, the term “Panama hat” doesn’t mean “straw fedora”—it’s about how and where the hat is made, so the styles of hat can be endless. The classics include fedoras of all brim lengths, an upturned brim style called the gambler and our personal favorite: the pith-helmet-esque optimo. No matter which style you go with, it’s all about how much sun protection you’re looking for—with longer brims, you’re getting more shade, but also risking floppiness. With shorter ones, you’re risking looking like K-Fed. There’s a happy medium there. You’ll find it.
If you must roll up your hat, choose the optimo style. This style already has a crease down the middle, to allow you to fold the hat in half, roll it up and secure the roll with the hat’s band tied around it. If you’re actually spending some time in the bush this summer, we’d highly recommend this move—otherwise you might want to preserve the hat you just painstakingly chose (and paid a pretty penny for). That said, the better the weave and construction, the more easily the hat will pop back into its original shape. If you’re not shy of a little wear and tear, make the investment and you’ll have the same hat, for better or worse, for the next 20 years. (Also, a few creases here and there can usually be erased with a quick shot of steam.)
For more on the subject, check out: A Gentleman’s Guide to the Panama Hat.