TOPPING OUT

Elegant, light and strong, the Panama is a legend among sunhats, beating even the pith-helmet for ambivalent allure. It has featured on the world's most discerning heads since the 19th century, but its method of production - backbreakingly primitive - is unchanged

Succeeding decades have attributed many crimes to the Sixties, but only one charge deserves to be taken at all seriously: the Sixties killed the hat. What with all that hair and druggy dancing, all that jokey dressing-up and scrambling of codes and general satire and mockery, the hat didn't stand a chance.

Determined assaults were also made on the bra and on shoes. These proved indispensable. But the hat, which for centuries had been considered essential (even when we wore wigs, we wore hats on top of them) was lost to two generations. Unless you're over 55 or under 25, a Rastafarian or a beagler, you probably don't have a single hat in your wardrobe, which is little short of tragic. Hats are stylish and fun and good for hiding behind or sleeping under, as well as for doffing and waving and throwing in the air. They keep you warm and dry in winter and cool and shady in summer. Hats save lives. Hats are fab.

No hat is cooler or shadier than the Panama. With its legendary silhouette, its incomparable lightness, strength and elegance, it is a prince among sunhats, a paragon of glamour and flair. Part of its allure lies in its ambivalence. It seems both European and exotic at the same time (the pith-helmet, though sublime in its way, must surely have been faintly ridiculous from the start - how the punkah wallahs must have giggled), and it is equally fetching on men and women. Traditionally worn by certain tribes of Central America, by Spanish conquistadors, tropical adventurers and cricket umpires, it looks just as good on almost anyone else.

Belying its name, it comes not from Panama but from Ecuador, where it is made in the southern region of Cuenca and on the Pacific coast of Manabi province. Down there it's known as el sombrero de paja toquilla (a tautology that might be rendered as "the straw hat of straw hats") or the jipijapa, in honour of the city in which its manufacture was first started. But the hat and its imitators have always been known as Panamas in the US, Europe and the Middle and Far East.

The plant supplying the raw material is a cousin of the palm. The conquistadors named it Carludovica palmate in honour of their emperor. It is cut when the leaves are still closed on the branch, and soon afterwards sold by the smallholders to the wholesalers, who "cook" it. Frayed, boiled, dried and cleaned, the vegetable fibre gains an exceptional colour and resistance. There are two completely different methods of weaving: the ancient way is practised on the coast to the north of Guayaquil (the major production area), the modern way in Cuenca to the south.

In the villages around Cuenca - notably Biblian and Sigsig - the straw is sold to the tejedoras, the weavers, who are local peasant women. It takes a day's highly skilled work to produce a hat of average quality. On market days the women sell them on to intermediaries, the comi- sionistas, who resell them in batches of 100, classed according to quality, to the big export houses in Cuenca. The exporters then send the hats out to azocadoras, who hand-stitch the brims, and on their return the Panamas are plunged into bleaching vats of zinc oxide. Once they're dried they're sent out a final time to maestros, who check the finish, mould the hats to shape and fine-tune them.

In the north the Panama is still made in the traditional way, in little workshops where the whitening is done in sulphur; when their hats are worn out, the Indians take them back to the shop for another sulphur bath, which gives them a second youth.

The best hats of all come from the district closest to the home of a the straw, from the villages of Jipijapa and Montecristi, where the peasants who weave the stuff spend as long as a month on the creation of the famous finos. The straw is the finest imaginable, the weave the tightest. The work is placed over primitive stools and held in place by big blocks of wood, and the labour is backbreakingly hard, with the weavers bent double over their hats. Traditionally the Montecristi hat is not bleached, so the straw keeps its beautiful gold colour and more of its natural strength.

Like the coffee bean, the cigar and cocaine, these hats conform to the classic model of trade between Latin America and the rest of the world; pennies to the peasants, big bucks to everyone else.

! Lock's of St James's Street, London SW1, sells Panamas from pounds 75 to pounds 115; Herbert Johnson of Bond Street, London W1, from pounds 99 to pounds 600

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