Why Sidney Greenstreet
Was Cool in his Panama Hat
By Andrew Hamilton
Junto Staff Writer
Mount Shasta, California
My information is that they make Panama hats in Ecuador, in the towns of Montecristi and Cuenca, because the straw grows there. They're called Panama hats because they were sold to Gringos at the Canal. The initial standard was the optimo style, the one with the Sidney Greenstreet fore-and-aft ridge down the centre and no sweat-band, so you could roll it up and stuff it into a tube. The hat tyle still exists. So do the tubes. (See Lock's in St. James's, London).
The weave pretty much defines the quality, and there is a wide range. Check the feel of a $49 Cuenca against a medium-grade Montecristi, costing, say $250 in the bargain bin. The finer the weave the better it looks and feels and the least likely it is to break or fray. The finer weaves get pretty supple, which is probably why they go for the Trilby or fedora style, since the material is too soft to support much snap in your wider brims. I got mine about half an inch too wide, and it's a little floppy in a breeze.
Just wore my superfino to the 45th high-school reunion, where a the sun beating down on precancerous balding domes inspired a number of guys to wear white fedoras. I was sort of embarassed, because next to the real thing they all looked like they were wearing party favors or those hard-hats disguised as Stetsons. Didn't want to seem to dis my cohort via ostentatious head-gear.
Christy's in London sells a lot of Cuencas. A market Cuenca is not as well-made as a Montecristi and is usually a starker white from bleaching the straw.
You can tell a Cuenca by the edges, which are usually cut, folded, and sewn back, sometimes covered with tape, and even wired, while Montecristi straws are woven tightly back into the brim leaving a smooth, slightly irregular edge. Also, a Cuenca sombrero is not as somber, and you can see lots of light coming through if you hold it up to the sun. Look closely at the brim and you'll see changes in the weave, with looser weave toward the inside letting. A Cuenca also often ends up with a cloth sweat-band, which wouldn't answer in a good Montecristi. Would be like tying your burgundy Lobbs with plaid laces.
To the undiscerning lubber's eye, however, a good Cuenca hat looks about the same as a Montecristi. It's when you get down into the Macy's or Samaritaine collection of clown hats where the difference is apparent.