By Darrin DuFord

The language of fashion may be difficult to decipher, but in Panama, a fashion accessory may be more difficult to keep on one’s head.

After decades of nonreligious life, my churchless streak had been broken. But not for any spontaneous rediscovery of God. Apart from attendance at the occasional wedding or funeral, a humble straw hat was the unlikely force that had finally prodded me to sit in a holy pew.

Years of travel had snapped the brittle fibers at the base of my hat’s brim, fiber by fiber, mile by mile. I had just crossed the tiny, leafy plaza in San Francisco, a small town in central-west Panama, when the wind rushing down the nearby continental divide had almost finished off the sombrero I’d purchased in the country on a previous visit. The hat was receiving a rough homecoming. The tears had coalesced into one large, frowning gash. With needle and thread in hand, I discovered that the town’s house-sized church, with its stone walls blocking the gusts of wind, would serve as a tranquil place to mend my hat.

The only light snuck in from the open doors. The church’s architectural details had been carved more than 300 years ago by converted Amerindians who added details that reflected their own interpretations of Christianity, including a varnished, doll-like Virgin Mary dressed up in a fabric robe and chiffon cloak, her humorless eyes demanding an apology for my choice of stitching venue.

I was not the only irreverent one. The town’s priest had just left the back of the church with his lively puppy on a leash, even though a sign had been posted to remind patrons to refrain from bringing their pets inside. I continued sewing. Fashion can be a nonverbal method of communication, and I didn’t want to transmit the wrong message about myself. As I would learn the following week, a Panamanian hat can speak for its wearer in matters much more diverse than I’d ever imagined.

~ ~ ~

I was in the region Panamanians refer to as El Interior, a stretch of agricultural lands west of the capital, but I was beginning to think of the area as Hat Country. Two years ago, I had acquired my flat-brimmed sombrero in the neighboring province of Coclé, where markets and roadside stands selling hats are almost as widespread as crosses marking tragic highway deaths.

The most common locally-woven hats, known as sombreros pintados, have angled brims and appear on waiters, on men hunched over daily tabloids in the town square, on bar-goers wearing pressed guayabera shirts and spit-shined black shoes. They outfit residents riding in roofless water taxis, the gusts of wind somehow unable to yank off the hats, as if the hats had been woven into the wearers’ hair. Hats are painted into the imagery of murals on the concrete walls of open-air restaurants. Worn by grinning models in billboard advertisements for ready-made sauce packets—even atop fruit vendors at indoor markets, even though the men were not in want of shade.

I was reminded of the delicious voice of Silvia de Grasse, one of Panama’s renowned singers from the mid-20th century, who immortalized the hat in the song “Sombrero Jipijapa,” referring to the type of palm-like plant used to make the straw. The country’s proud attraction to an article of apparel, made from locally available palm trees, resembles the likeness of religious devotion. My own devotion to patch up my hat, and the pilgrimage to replace it with another, could be interpreted similarly. Perhaps it was appropriate that I had chosen a house of worship in which to make the repairs.

Panama is not alone in claiming a hat that has transcended fashion to become a piece of wearable culture. The American cowboy hat roams freely between pasture and party as a symbol of style and Western identity. In her book Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing, sociologist Dr. Diana Crane reveals that hats hinted at one’s social rank in 19th-century America and Europe. While hats, such as bowlers, were worn to indicate one’s bourgeois standing, they were soon commandeered by other social strata to blur class lines. In El Interior, any past blurring of class lines is complete: the sombrero pintado has become a wearable symbol of the region.

But the style of hat I refer to may not be the hat you’re imagining. The fabric-banded, fedora-style hat known as the Panama Hat, preferred by Hannibal Lecter, Jessica Alba, and rookie gangsters, is made in Ecuador. The Panama Hat acquired its misleading name when the hats were seen passing through Panama en route to Europe and the United States. A few know-it-all onlookers (as early as 1834) associated the hat with its transit point, not its country of origin, and the name stuck.

The California Gold Rush cemented the accessory’s name in history when Ecuadorian entrepreneurs shipped thousands of their hats to Panama to outfit the gold miners on their journey across the tropical isthmus. At the start of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt donned a Panama Hat during his visit to the Panama Canal’s construction site, elevating the accessory from utility to fashion statement. Later in the century, Hollywood icons from Paul Newman to Johnny Depp insured the hat’s timelessness.

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My sewing job had failed by the time I reached the town of La Pintada, a couple hours further east on the Pan-American Highway, where 5,000 artisans in and around the town weave most of Panama’s sombreros. My hat’s frowning gash had grown. The hat had lost its style, and perhaps its social acceptability. My wife, also in search of a hat, had joined me in the public minibus on the ride up the pasture-blanketed foothills of Panama’s Coclé province. The mountain range’s rough peaks poked up as if the horizon had been torn, and the air had grown cool and restless.

The Panamanian sombrero pintado took its name from this town, which used to boast the only painted (pintado) house in the area a century ago. Since the hats were woven here—and since Panamanians tend to be partial to landmark navigation as opposed to being reliant on street names—the town was named after the house, and the hats after the town. Like any self-respecting Panamanian town, La Pintada is easily navigable owing to its central plaza, complete with requisite gazebo, benches and manicured grassy area. Fellow passengers on the bus had told me to look for the store run by Reinaldo Quiróz, La Pintada’s most famous hat maker.

The living-room-sized store faced the central plaza and was covered with a corrugated aluminum roof. Rows of sombreros—some with dyed black rings, others with dashed weaves, others simply the natural sandy color of dried palm leaves—were attached to cords strung across the walls with clothespins. Quiróz found us inspecting the circular wooden molds onto which the crowns are woven. He had a compact frame but stood up as straight as a pillar, betraying none of the fatigue that might be expected from the monotony of fabricating the same article over the span of a lifetime.

“Hats are part of our culture,” Quiróz began when I asked him about the uses of the various hats he offered. Farmers usually buy two hats: a basic sombrero with a coarse weave and a large brim for work in the field; and another, the finer and more costly sombrero pintado for daily use.

“Sombreros were made in Panama over 200 years ago, before the arrival of Ecuadorian Panama Hats,” Quiróz explained. He unclipped a hat and held it up, spinning it slowly, as if it were a jewel. “A Panamanian sombrero does not have indentations on the crown like an Ecuadorian Panama Hat. It is made of woven rings sewn together in a spiral,” he said as his finger followed the outline of the brim. He explained that the materials are purely Panamanian: the black rings within the weave get their color from natural dyes used by the Emberá and Wounaan Amerindians of Panama’s easternmost jungle provinces.

Near the end of the 19th century, the popularity of the Ecuadorian Panama Hat threatened to topple the actual Panamanian sombrero industry. “Because of the great demand for Ecuadorian Panama Hats,” Quiróz explained, “the Panamanian government, around the year 1890, brought in artisans from Ecuador to teach Panamanians how to make the Ecuadorian Panama Hat.” It was a one-two punch: a foreign product had hijacked Panama’s cultural identity, and local artisans were being told to manufacture foreign Ecuadorian hats as a replacement to their own sombreros.

At that time, Panama was still a far-flung and rebellious province of Colombia. But when Panama gained sovereignty in 1903, the artisans, vitalized by their independence, began to teach their pupils how to make sombreros pintados instead of Ecuadorian Panama Hats. “Thirty years later,” Quiróz added, a glowing smirk growing across his face, “classes on the fabrication of sombreros pintados were obligatory in the primary schools of the Coclé province.”

Panamanians have also discovered that their sombreros offer a versatility that most molded Ecuadorian Panama Hats do not, thanks to basic geometry. The sombrero pintado’s round crown and slightly slanted brim have given Panamanians the ability to change the hat’s shape. Since human heads are oval, not round, the act of wearing the round hat distorts the crown, which in turn distorts the brim into a front and back flap. Each flap can be toggled up independently.

And not just for vanity. According to Quiróz, the bus drivers and fruit salesmen may be attempting to communicate their current temperament through their sombrero’s brim. He began decoding the head-bound language of El Interior by sliding on a sombrero pintado in a well-practiced motion and flipping up the front brim. He shook his fists and, while holding back a chuckle at his overemphasis, he said, “This style means that he is looking for a fight.” The angled-up accessory did not immediately register with me as an extension of angry posture, but I made a mental note to give such wearers a wide berth.

Both brims up? An economically-successful man. The front up and the entire hat tilted back? You would be facing a strong worker, since the extra tilt allows the wearer to wipe the sweat off his forehead. And like any language, this too has its regionalisms. “There are several interpretations from different parts of the country,” Quiróz said, flipping up only the front flap. In Coclé, unlike other areas, this wearer may not be ready to throw punches, but instead may be keeping secrets and cannot be trusted. A ladies’ man, for example. I surmised that both etymologies could share a common ancestor, one of manly overconfidence.

Any aspiring hat-flap interpreter must also consider that wearing only the back flap up holds its own ambiguous pitfall. “In the Azuero Peninsula, this style means that the wearer is looking for a girlfriend.” In Coclé, however, the same style indicates that the wearer is an intellectual. I wondered what confusion might occur if a proudly educated lad from Coclé travels south to the neighboring Azuero Peninsula. How would the women know whether he was displaying the sartorial equivalent of a Facebook relationship status update or harmlessly preparing to bombard them with boring literary references?

Hat flap etymology has also been known to evolve over time. Many years ago, Quiróz explained, when a man wanted to kiss his girlfriend, he would use his hat to conceal the tender moment. When both flaps were down, more of the action was hidden. Today, wearing both flaps down currently holds a meaning that has morphed from the joy of a sneaky smoocher into a general mood of calmness and agreeability.

I glanced back at my mortally wounded sombrero. With its flat, damaged brim, I knew it was not a real sombrero pintado, and thus was unable to articulate mood. Silent as it was, it still had something the sombrero pintado lacked: a ring of black and white yarn woven into a repetitive geometric pattern. I asked Quiróz if he knew what it was. He lifted it up and studied it. “This is a weave made in a different part of Coclé. The cotton design is an indigenous motif. It’s a newer design.” I enjoyed finally discovering that my hat was a newer—yet obscure—cousin of the sombrero pintado. But after learning of the latter’s influential history, I began trying on several from Quiróz’s wall.

My wife, eyeing my torn hat, asked Quiróz what would be the average life expectancy of one of his creations. “Four or five years,” he answered, “but if it is worn every day, then less. In Panama, there are people who change their hats every year.” I felt marginally better knowing that I was not as obsessed as Panama’s fashion slaves.

While the hats with finer weaves—up to $500 for one with twenty vueltas (rings), requiring a month to make—are more desirable, I opted for a coarser, seven-vuelta selection, one which could accept a makeshift neck strap without causing weave damage. My wife selected one with an accented pattern of birds. It was one of Quiróz’s modern designs, one that has expanded his clientele base to both sexes. Since his father started the business decades ago, Quiróz has introduced new patterns—fifty-nine in all—further shaping the evolution of the Panamanian sombrero.

In 2011, the Panamanian National Assembly formally recognized the cultural and economic importance of the hat by declaring October 19th the Day of the Sombrero Pintado. An annual festival takes place in the town of La Pintada and includes the participation of weavers from the surrounding area of Coclé.

While Panamanian hat makers have confidently reinstated their sartorial heritage in their own country, the misleading name of the Ecuadorian-made Panama Hat is still causing trouble in Ecuador. In a 2012 article in the Miami Herald International Edition, Alba Cabrera of the Ecuadorian Institute of Intellectual Property remarked, “In Ecuador it is prohibited to say ‘Panama Hat.’ Here, it is the Montecristi,” referring to the coastal town that produces many of the finest hats in the country. When I visited Ecuador in 2006, however, the hat vendors I’d spoken with still casually referred to their products as Panama Hats without any signs of unease.

Several tourism websites and online clothing retailers have also thrust themselves into the arena of thorny nomenclature by diplomatically referring to the accessory as the Ecuador Panama Hat—but no matter what the hat is named, its popularity is on the rise. Ecuador’s hat makers reported that sales were up 25 percent in 2014 as compared to the previous year. The trend would have been even steeper if it weren’t for the competition from cheaper, Chinese-made imitations, which some Ecuadorians refer to as “false Panamas”—a term the Panamanian sombrero weavers just might relish as fitting justice.

I had taken three steps out of Quiróz’s store when the wind made off with my new sombrero pintado. It didn’t matter how I adjusted the brim—as the intellectual, the agreeable chap, or the belligerent hothead—the gusts tore it off just the same and sent it rolling across La Pintada’s manicured square again and again.

~ ~ ~

Arroz con piña, or rice with pineapple, was the drink of the day at the bakery near the square. I was now in Penonomé, the capital of the Coclé province, about ten miles from La Pintada. I had just returned to the counter for another forty-cent Styrofoam cup of arroz con piña when a man in a light yellow guayabera and a sombrero pintado sat down at an outdoor table with his daughter. The weave on his hat was fine and smooth. Twelve, maybe fifteen vueltas. Both front and back flaps were up. He could have been alerting the bakery of his acute business sense. But I was more interested in how the hat stayed on his head, as my scientific side assured me that the upward flaps should provide lift.

I complimented him on his sombrero and asked him if he has had problems with Penonomé’s wind, a non-stop gusher of a breeze that gleefully joyrides down the slopes of the nearby mountains and into town. He nodded dismissively. How did he manage to keep it on his head? He probed me for a moment, freezing his pensive eyes on me, and then answered, “It’s the correct size.”

By that logic, I have never owned a hat of the correct size. I did not let that prevent me from wandering past the town’s quiet rows of colonial-era houses, admiring their stained and varnished doors that appeared as if they had just been constructed. The houses were lined up neatly, creating a wind tunnel. I kept one hand on my new hat, and I was mildly disappointed that there was no way to communicate frustration by means of brim manipulation.

My wandering led me to a dead end—the town’s cemetery. Many of the above-ground tombs had been adorned with pastel-colored tiles, the same all-purpose tiles one can find covering sidewalks, walls of churches and the floors of Panamanian bakeries, giving the cemetery an unusually welcoming and lively small-town atmosphere. Such a feeling was enhanced when I read the inscriptions and realized that almost everyone in and around Penonomé, both dead and alive, seemed to have one of two surnames, either Quiróz or Arosemena.

I was still carrying my old sombrero in a plastic bag. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it in the trash, but I knew I had to rid myself of its needless bulk. Reflecting on the hat’s journey and how I had ushered it back to its home country and province, I placed it on an empty plot, somewhere between the tiled tombs of the Quirózes and the Arosemenas. Back to its old stomping grounds.

As I walked back past the row of colonial houses, one of the varnished doors had just opened and a thin young man in his late twenties emerged with a swagger. Nightfall was arriving, and the back flap of his hat was up. Cruising for ladies or signifying readiness for philosophical debate? Or both? Perhaps neither. One thing was certain: his hat was the correct size.

Darrin DuFord is arguably the only connoisseur of both wine and slow-cooked jungle rodent. He is the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. He has written food and travel pieces for the San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Roads & Kingdoms, Gastronomica, and Perceptive Travel, among others.