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Monday, August 15, 2022

The convoluted history of the ‘Panama hat’ and the fight for its paradoxical return to Ecuador | Fashion

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This story begins with a mistake. It was 1906. Thousands of workers had arrived in Panama to tame the dense jungle and build the Canal that would finally connect the two oceans. The president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, had traveled down to the ground to see first-hand the magnitude of the work. To mitigate the heat and not succumb to the humidity that had already taken hundreds of lives, the president was given one of the typical hats of the area. A straw hat, not felt, light, with a short brim and that did not let the light pass through its dense and fine fabrics. An essential and very common accessory among the workers who built the Canal and of great popularity among travelers who went from the East Coast of the United States to the West Coast, heading for California, in the midst of the gold rush, and who found in this passage its shortest path. The light tone of the hat and its natural elegance made the black and white photographs that the newspapers made of the president’s visit make it even more visible, to the point that, when he returned to the United States, President Roosevelt was asked about the origin of such a peculiar accessory. Without further ado, he made a statement that would mark the name and destiny of that hat until a century later: it is a Panama hat, he declared. Roosevelt did not know that his hat was not Panamanian, it was Ecuadorian. Panama was nothing more than a select place of commercialization. “The hats had arrived there thanks to the fact that General José Eloy Alfaro Delgado, elected president of Ecuador, had seen a great commercial opportunity in bringing the traditional toquilla straw hat that was woven in Montecristi, Ecuador, to Panama, which, by then, It was experiencing an extraordinary boom,” says Bryan Franco Mero, an Ecuadorian artisan and creator of the Montecuador Hats brand, which has specialized in creating high-quality, handmade hats that travel around the world. Roosevelt’s mistake, typical of a time when no one was very concerned about issues of appellation of origin or the conservation of heritage, the extreme popularity that the hat obtained among the thousands who passed through the Panama Canal and the ease of its name, sonorous in Spanish and English, was maintaining decade after decade a certain veil and opacity over the beautiful craft tradition that takes place in the equatorial humid mountains where toquilla straw is planted. By not having its provenance in its name, the history of the hands behind each hat becomes less easy to identify, less recognizable. “To make a single toquilla straw hat – which is how we know it in Ecuador -, at least three artisans are needed: the taquillero, who is the one who collects the straw, dries it and treats it with sulfur until the fiber loses all greenery and adopts that traditional natural color that makes it unique. The one that weaves it that, depending on how many knots it has, can take up to eight months to make. And the one who polishes it, finishes the edges and irons it,” says Modesto Mero Pachay, from Modesto Hats, who has specialized in artisan hat making for four generations. How to return the Panama hat to Ecuadorians? That transposition of names between two nearby and sister lands that makes thousands of people who wear the most emblematic hat of the summer, -immortalized by elegant men like Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman-, still believe that its origin is Panamanian, has led to Different voices, especially from Ecuadorians outside their country, wonder how to do justice to the true roots of this select piece. Justice and recognition that is reflected in the consolidation of a tradition that has existed since the Huancavilca, Mantas and Caras indigenous communities accompanied their traditional clothing with a hat unlike any other that any Spaniard had seen before. “The story of where a product comes from is what gives it meaning, emotion and connection. When a product is made by hand through a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation, it is guaranteed to last longer: it is made with love”, reads the proclamation of the Cuyana brand, of Ecuadorian origin that sells hats of toquilla straw throughout the world and that has launched a peculiar petition called ‘Not a Panama Hat’. Already signed by more than 5,000 people, the letter seeks to demand that all global retailers change the name of the iconic hat. “Join us in our movement to reclaim the rightful heritage behind the hat by giving Ecuador and its indigenous weavers the recognition they deserve. After more than a century of using the wrong name, we demand that action be taken. Let’s demand a new name that honors the true origin story of this hat and let the people who bring this story to life, the weavers, choose that name,” says the petition posted on Change.org. The request also specifies that the brand, headed by Ecuadorian Karla Gallardo, is working together with several local government organizations to survey weavers and select new possible names: Toquillara and Montecristi Hat are some of the proposals. The first appeals to the fiber from which the hats are made, the second, to the more traditional place where they are woven. A woman making a Panama hat with toquilla straw in Cuenca, Ecuador. Photo: Getty Although the toquilla straw hat has been recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO since 2012, this initiative would seek transparency in its origins and legacies in a very relevant place, the mass market. For local artisan Bryan Franco Mero, the most important thing before a name change is the popularization of its true history “I think people already recognize the Panama hat more as a style, just like the Fedora, or the rejoneador, The important thing here is that its history is known and that more and more people are encouraged to visit Montecristi, where some of the finest hats in the world are made”. As more ambitious changes take place, Modesto Mero Pachay encourages global buyers to be more conscious with their choices and ensure, when buying a Panama hat, that they are buying a true Ecuadorian hat. “There are many ways to know its originality and provenance. First they should not be whitish, the natural color, more creamy, is the color that is achieved after an arduous process. The edges must be perfectly finished, at the moment of putting it in the sun and looking inside, the light must not sneak in and, most importantly, they must have a label that says that it was made in Ecuador, with an address and telephone number to be sure. that it does correspond to the Montecristi region”, explains Modesto, who assures that fine hats from this region are usually worth an average of 95 euros. Whether from the reassignment of the name or from the promotion and visibility of its origin, the voices of the artisans seem to agree on one idea: link the true story to that iconic piece, elevate it, give it more relevance, make it more appetizing, and Above all, it contributes to protecting the permanence of a beautiful and elegant tradition that is essential for the subsistence of ancestral peoples.

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– Article Written By @Angélica Gallón from https://smoda.elpais.com/moda/historia-panama-hat-sombrero-ecuador/

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