May 15 was the official beginning of straw hat season in North America, and the imminent return of sunshine to the Bay area means that it is finally time to don my favorite style of hat, that being the Montecristi Panama.
Perhaps the best thing about the Panama is that there is no such thing. What I mean by that is not that the hat is actually made in Ecuador, though it is, but that there is no single hat style that represents the Panama any more than there is a single style of felt hat. And so we have the basic fedora like the one in the photo, a dozen derivatives of that same fedora, the Optimo (my own favorite), the plantation hat, and others including straw versions of the Coke and the Homburg (the style I would get if I could justify another straw).
Now all these styles come in a variety of quality levels, with prices that go into the stratosphere. The thousands (in any currency) asked for the better versions are quite understandable given that Panama quality is based on the fineness of the weave, and the finest hats can take the weaver months of work. Fortunately, above a certain point the weave of a hat is discernable only at very close range and, for most men, middle of the road quality is quite good enough.
Determining middle of the road quality is of course a problem for there is no generally accepted rating system for Panamas but there is a lot of marketing hype. And so, for me, the reliable way to acquire a Panama, should I decide that I cannot live without that Homburg just as an example, is to trust in the taste and experience of a reliable seller. Two of those to my mind are Chicago's Optimo Hats and Hawaii's Brent Black (I am an Optimo customer but have never used Mr. Black).
Whatever the source, the Panama may be the one universally accepted hat, meaning it can be worn by virtually anyone with just about any (men's) clothing, from casual to evening clothes, and usually without so much as a hint of costume. To my mind that makes it sort of a baseball cap for grownups.