A Panama hat or just Panama is a traditional brimmed hat of Ecuadorian origin that is made from the plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant (Carludovica palmata). Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas, and Europe. For some products, the name of their point of international sale rather than their place of domestic origin stuck, hence “Panama hats.” The 49ers picked up these hats in Panama, and when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal construction, he wore such a hat, which increased its popularity. They're also known as a Jipijapa, named for a town in Ecuador once a center of the hat trade. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a use of the term as early as 1834.
Glorified during the 19th century, the Panama has since been considered the prince of straw hats. Ecuadorian national hero and emblematic figure, Eloy Alfaro helped finance his liberal revolution of Ecuador through the export of panamas. The reputation of the hat was established by Napoleon III, Edward VII, and some other aficionados.
Beginning in the late 1960s, hats in general were worn less often. However, the Panama seems to be one of the few hats to survive the tests of time. Men can still be seen sporting a Panama in the tropics. It is, by no means, as popular as it was during the golden age of hats, but it is still surviving. As a matter of fact, well founded hat companies, such as Dobbs, Stetson and Cavanaugh, now produce more Panama styled hats than felt hats, such as fedoras or bowlers.
In the long-running British sci-fi television show, Doctor Who, the Panama was worn rarely by the First Doctor (William Hartnell), occasionally by the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) in a rolled up style, and most frequently by the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy).
The quality of the weave itself, however, is more important. A high weave count, even an attractive-looking one, does not guarantee a well-woven hat. It is said that a Panama of true quality can hold water and can be folded for storage without damage.
Even though the Panama continues to provide a livelihood for thousands of Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers capable of making the finest "montecristi superfinos" remain; the UK's Financial Times Magazine (Jan. 2007) recently reported that there may not be more than 15-20 years remaining for the industry in Ecuador, due to the competition of paper-based Chinese-made imitations, especially as a few hat sellers dominate and manipulate the market, killing the industry.