The Truth About Hats and Togs

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, May 1997

The Truth About Hats and Togs

Where to get great deals on misnamed chapeaux
By Bob Payne

Keep this one under your hat: panama hats aren't made in Panama. They acquired that name because most are exported from there. But true panamas originate in Ecuador, and the best of them confer not only shade, but all the sangfroid and bully style of their first gringo popularizer, Teddy Roosevelt.

Good-quality panamas are available in Quito, but for the best deals, head about 200 miles south to the highlands town of Cuenca, already an overnight stop for most people trekking the Inca Trail. Browse the many millinery shops lining the cobbled streets of the city center. Or see how the hats are made by visiting the Kurt Dorfzaun Company on Avenida Gil Ramirez Davalos, where about half a million are woven each year.

Before buying any panama, roll it into a cylinder. The tighter the roll, the finer the weave and the better the quality. A hat of medium-weight straw and medium-tight weave should cost $25-$60, depending on your haggling skills. You'll pay considerably more for one of the legendary panamas woven so fine it can be twirled up and slipped through a wedding ring.

If a trip to Ecuador seems a high price to pay for a hat, top-of-the-line panamas are available in the United States at J. J. Hat Center in New York City ($495-$1,500; 800-822-1911), the Montecristi Custom Hat Works in Santa Fe, New Mexico ($250-$10,000; 505-983-9598), and Paul's Hat Works in San Francisco ($250-$30,000; 415-221-5332). Of course, at these prices, a hat-buying spree to Ecuador starts to look like a bargain.

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