At the turn of the 19th century, the Panama hat entered America's sartorial stage atop a rather surprising host. President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing the classic white-and-black straw hat while inspecting progress on the Panama Canal. It has since become a fashion staple, perfect for those eye-squintingly bright summer days.
Roosevelt sits in the carriage of a crane at the Panama Canal. (CORBIS)
But, as New York photographer Steve Remich found, the name is a misnomer.
"I was in Ecuador (in 2009) with a friend for a project, and my colleague mentioned that Panama hats were in fact not originally from Panama, but from Ecuador," Remich said. "That sparked my interest."
Remich was amazed to learn that no matter where the hats sell around the world or how high their price tag, their initial weaving is still done in the most traditional way.
"The hats' bodies are still woven by people who don't work in factories," Remich explained. "Weaving full time isn't economically viable, so it's just something that — primarily, but not exclusively — women do throughout their day, while doing other things. I hope when someone picks up a slick-looking Panama hat somewhere in Miami, he realizes that it could have been woven by an indigenous woman in the mountains of Ecuador."
Below, trace the Panama hat's journey from beginning to end, as captured in Remich's images. Also, check out the photographer's video of the process, here.
Panama hats are made from a special straw (called "toquilla" in Spanish). Plantations located in Ecuador's low-lying, tropical coastal plains grow the straw, which is subsequently treated with chemicals to bleach and cure it. | (Steve Remich)
Local weavers buy the straw at markets — it usually costs around two U.S. dollars for enough straw to make a single hat— and then spend a day or two weaving the hat itself. Locals pass the weaving knowledge from generation to generation, and many earn extra money on the side by "freelancing" their services to nearby finishing factories. | (Steve Remich)
Once a weaver is finished with her hat, she sells it to a factory, usually for about three U.S. dollars (meaning the weavers make roughly one dollar per woven hat). Every Panama hat, whether it eventually sells for $10 or $100, goes through this initial process. | (Steve Remich)
The hats come into the factories in various neutral shades, with extra strands still hanging off. | (Steve Remich)
Factory workers bleach the hats… | (Steve Remich)
…and dry them in the sun. | (Steve Remich)
Then, workers add accouterments such as the classic black band. | (Steve Remich)
At that point, the hats are ready to be exported and sold at a markup in countries such as England and the United States. | (Steve Remich)