Do a good job, a very good job, finding a Panama hat that suits

Whatever the reason, in summer, your head wants a hat. — AFP pic
Whatever the reason, in summer, your head wants a hat. — AFP pic

NEW YORK, June 25 — The heat, the glare, the dermatologist’s admonishments regarding melanoma. Whatever the reason, in summer, your head wants a hat. 

Yet it may be having some trouble getting around the idea. In winter, covering your cranium is a no-brainer. The felt fedora serves admirably in many business-suited circumstances, despite its unsavoury association with pickup artists and other poseurs. Tweed caps, merino beanies, and rabbit-fur ushankas likewise pull their weight in certain dressy contexts. But that weight was heavyweight, and now you want all the style provided by a hat with none of the heatstroke. 

First, we’re not talking about rugged bush hats appropriate to the Outback. Nor are we considering New Era caps, found in the dining rooms of Outback Steakhouse. And while there is a place for a Tommy Bahama safari hat bought, in desperation and at a steep markup, from a hotel gift shop, that place is not atop a man walking to a client meeting. 

One way to adjust to the summer season is to look for a lighter material of whatever style of brimmed hat best suits you in winter. It is very likely that your preferred choice—a fedora, a trilby, a porkpie, what have you—is also available in straw. Current models from such brands as Albertus Swanepoel and Paul Smith use raffia, a fibre made from membranes on palm fronds found across sub-Saharan Africa. But the dedicated hat-seeker will encounter more types of straw that he can shake a stalk of grass at—Florentine wheat straw and brittle bao straw, and Mexican sisal, and more. Some esteemed hat makers, including Borsalino, offer brimmed cotton hats, which might seem a little guitarist-in-a-bad-ska-band but can sometimes work.

It is even possible to purchase a straw top hat, though I can only imagine two gentlemen wearing such a thing: Mr Peanut, weekending in Charleston, and Eustace Tilley, catching butterflies near his place in Sag Harbour. Point is, the novice summer-hat customer can do worse than to consider searching for a comfortably familiar design.

The phrase summer-weight hat generally summons visions of Panama hats, woven from the leaves of the toquilla palm. These are always airy but hardy, and the best of them, such as Montecristis, are ultrafine. “The joke in the UK is that you should be able to pull your Panama hat through your signet ring,” says Harry Brantly, a founder of the lifestyle brand Frescobol Carioca.

One alleged advantage is that the Panama travels well. Some hat makers tout its “rollability,” while others speak frankly about the opposite. “Ours is not rollable,” Brantly said, explaining that, yes, you could roll one up and pack it in your suitcase, but after 20 times or so, you might as well just leave it there.  

Wearing one of these hats with a dark suit will possibly make you look goofy. Wearing one with a polo shirt will probably make you look like a cricket umpire. But with a light jacket and the right attitude, it is doable. I suggest trying on Panamas in a variety of brim widths, crown heights, and band colours. It doesn’t have to be classic white to be authentic, either; a darker shade—a sand one from Lock & Co or a navy one from Loro Piana—will work well with a medium grey or medium blue suit. But I get it if this hat seems unworkably dated. I myself have suggested that a Panama may work best when worn with bushy moustache while squiring a date in a drop-waist skirt. 

If you find yourself making garden-party chit-chat about this hat, remember that it hails not from the isthmus of Panama but, like many excellent hats, from the Andes—Ecuador, specifically. It acquired the name because Panama was its most important export market. Some observers trace its popularity in the US and Europe to the building of the Panama Canal, which I think we did a good job building, a very good job.  

We cannot conclude without considering the round-shaped, flat-brimmed classic called the boater. In recent decades, most men other than country lawyers have found the boater too stagey to consider for daily wear. It has been left to people who appear on literal stages (playing clarinet in New Orleans, say) or in actual boats (at the Henley Royal Regatta).

If you think you have the stuff to try it out, please do, perhaps with a navy double-blazer. Also, do your part to rebrand the boater by referring to it instead by an alternative name, the strat, for straw hat. But be sure to alert your friends before leaving the house in one, lest three of them have the same idea and onlookers start mistaking you for a barbershop quartet. — Bloomberg