A Classic Panama Hat

Dissolute expat lifestyle entirely optional (but strongly encouraged).

Photo: Joseph D'Arco for

The author with his Mexican-bought take on an Ecuadorian classic called the Panama

I happen to have a great fondness—or is that weakness?—for postwar novels (by Durrell, Bowles, Greene and Lowry, et al.) about expat writers in exotic locales loafing around in rumpled linen suits and Panama hats, eager for nothing so much as their next G&T. Theirs is a way of being and an aesthetic I’ve always longed for in my daily existence—so much so that I once moved all the way to Vietnam in the hopes of scenes from The Quiet American just happening to me (but I digress). So on a recent trip to Mexico City, seizing an opportunity to grab at least one of these props (the linen suit’ll have to wait), I was nothing more than a man, a plan, a hat: Panama!

The spoils of that venture (above) place me in a great tradition, and not just with the esteemed Aaron Levine, whose endorsement for a big brim hat I happily cosign. Better (and not just fictional) men than I wore the Panama with panache it’d be impossible to match: Harry Truman rocked a custom-made Stetson straw hat while at the “summer White House”; Bogie favored the Borsalino Montecristi—the perfect crown for swashbuckling along the Amalfi coast with John Huston on Beat the Devil—and, most famously, Teddy Roosevelt sported one to the opening of the Panama Canal (which cemented the style’s association with Panama, despite its origin in mountains of Ecuador 200 miles to the south).

The hat that Ecuadorean native Don Manuel Alfaro first exported in 1835 has come to be a symbol of adventure, elegant enough for Fitzgerald but rough enough for Hemingway. Just the sight of one is enough to conjure the sound of a lazy azure tide, palm trees nodding in the balmy trade winds, and a taste for something tropical in my tumbler (or Tumblr).

A good rule of thumb when shopping for your “toquilla,” as it is sometimes called, after the fiber employed in its construction, is the more rings, the better. Turn the lid over and you’ll find a series of concentric circles woven around the top of the crown. The more dense and constructed these “vueltas,” the better the quality of hat. Of course, sometimes quality is overrated. If you’re rambling around a grand plaza somewhere dusty and distant, surrounded by the ghosts of every novel and movie you’ve ever loved, you should be probably focusing on your next G&T, not the tech specs of your toquilla.

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