THE PANAMA HAT
JAMES LOCK & CO. LTD., LONDON
I have acquired one of the finest summer hats in the world. It is not a pith helmet, although that hat’s associations with our long-lost Empire did make it a tempting choice. (The pith helmet, incidentally, was never as silly as it looked: it was originally made of cork, so that it could be soaked in water and thereby keep its wearer’s head cool.) Nor is it a straw boater, despite my fond memories of punting at Cambridge. No, it is a panama – a very special panama. And I obtained this finest of summer hats from the world’s finest hat shop: James Lock & Company of number 6 St James’s Street.
There are some shops which I find it impossible to enter without a surge of pleasure. Number 6 St James’s Street is one. The company, founded in 1676, has been trading from these very premises since 1765. In one corner ticks a long case clock of rare quality. In another is propped the hat of a former customer, the Duke of Wellington. From here Lord Nelson used to obtain his hats, and the Prince of Wales still does. This is a place of gentle courtesy and quiet craftsmanship, a haven of discreet expertise. Ten minutes here, and I can still believe that all is well with the world.
Now you will know, of course, that the panama hat does not come from Panama. Its design is attributed to Francisco Delgado, a gentleman who lived in Ecuador in the 17 th century. All genuine panamas are hand woven in Ecuador from tequilla palm fibre. Perhaps we really ought to call them ecuadors. But the British and American visitors to the newly opened Panama Canal, taking a fancy to the fine soft hats of the Ecuadorian workers, simply applied the name of the country in which they found this new headgear. So ‘panama’ it has to be.
Light, practical, stylish and hard wearing, the panama soon began to protect the heads of the famous. Napoleon Bonaparte endured his exile on St Helena in his, Sir Winston Churchill painted in his and the explorer Shackleton even took one on his last voyage to the polar ice.
Different qualities of panama are obtainable. But, like you, gentle reader, my interest is only in the very best. We are, therefore, concerned about the fineness of the spliced fibre strands. The rule is simple: the thinner the strands, the finer the quality of the hat. An ordinary panama will take a day to weave: the best will take a week. The very finest panamas come from the town of Monte Cristi, and there are only a dozen weavers in Monte Cristi who are able to make the hat we are after – the super fino Monte Cristi panama.
These hats are works of art and, as such, each is signed by its proud maker. Two styles of superfine are offered: the Trilby and the Folder. I chose the latter. I like its more bulbous, more substantial style and I like the idea that I can fold it and roll it (I reproduce for your interest the illustrated instructions on this procedure) and pop it into its travel tube – so that I can avoid the horror of having it smashed to pieces by one of those kind people on aeroplanes who seem to delight in throwing their heavy hand luggage on top of my immaculately arranged clothes in the overhead locker.
Several examples were brought for my perusal by the charming Marketing Manager, Janet Taylor. She measured my head in centimetres (61) and converted the result into the Imperial hat size (7½). (She also explained to me how the Imperial size is obtained: by measuring – in inches, of course – from front to back and from side to side and then dividing by two.) Immediately the quality was evident, in the intricate delicacy of the weave and in the tiny weight of each hat. One, because of its slightly lighter colour and marginally wider brim appealed to me particularly. I tried it on in front of an arrangement of mirrors which allowed me to view it from every side. Perfect, in both fit and appearance. Inside was the tiny squiggle of a signature. This was the hat for me.
It was whisked away for a couple of minutes. When it returned, my initials had been stamped in gold leaf on the inside leather band. Miss Taylor assured me that, were the hat ever to go severely out of shape, I could take it back to the shop, where they would be happy to steam and restore it for me. As for its care and maintenance, an occasional light spray with water and a degree of diligence in ensuring that it remains folded only for the shortest periods possible should result in a long and happy life.
The price? £595. This might seem a lot for a summer hat. But this is not just a summer hat. It is one of the world’s finest summer hats. It is a super fino Monte Cristi panama. As such, this price strikes me as admirably modest. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that no gentleman’s wardrobe is complete without one.