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Put On a Panama

This summer, don the finely crafted hat with a mythical past and uncertain future.

One of the most refined and notorious balmy weather hats is shrouded in tall tales -- some true, some not.

Panamanians refer to their country as "the bridge of the world," most likely due to its famous canal.

But the Panama hat has more to do with the canal itself than the country as a whole. In fact, this Mercedes-Benz of the hat world originated in Ecuador.

Long before the canal was built, Napoleon wore the famous straw hat, and Inca Indian workers before him.

Only when President Teddy Roosevelt wore the hat (most likely purchased in Ecuador) at the building of the canal at the turn of the century did the hat became a status symbol.

The misguided name "Panama hat" stuck.

Since then, the Panama has graced the heads of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Winston Churchill.

The hat's popularity in the U.S. came in with a president and went out with one as well. John F. Kennedy was the first president to be inaugurated without a hat and as a result, Ecuador's hat industry -- its number one export -- tanked.

"It was like the stock-market crash of hats," remarks Tony Lippi, who runs the

Panama Hat Company in St. Augustine, Fla., with his parents Consuelo Soria and Chuck.

Today, celebrities like Robert Redford and Anthony Hopkins in

Silence of The Lambs

continue to sport this classic. Hawaii-based

Brent Black, one of the most well known Panama hat salesmen, lists some famous owners of his Montecristi Panama hats, including Bill Cosby, Harrison Ford, Molly Ringwald and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A Dying Reed

Lippo and his family make four trips a year to Ecuador to visit relatives and hunt down high quality Panamas. But their task is getting harder.

The Lippos look for weavers who can craft

TheStreet Recommends

super finos

, the highest grade of hat made from the finest thread (or straw) count. Usually it's a matter of driving from village to village and relying on word of mouth.

Only about ten or so weavers in the world are capable of making the elusive

super fino

, says Lippo, and most of them are concentrated in the town of Montecristi on the Ecuadorian coast.

One of them is Cenovio Espinal, whose eyesight and resulting hat count is waning. But while other hat weavers are finding different occupations, says Lippo, Espinal is teaching his children the centuries-old art.

"They gave me a headache to weave," says Lippo of his own experience in learning the Panama hat craft. "It's like weaving hair."

Though the material in the finer grade hats can look like thread, it's actually straw derived from the


palm (native to Ecuador), which can be spliced as fine as hair but still retain its strength.

"Basically it's all about the thread count," Lippo notes.

Mass-produced Panamas, the kind you see in golf shops, tend to be rather coarse. Then you get the different grade


and the extremely rare

super finos

that look like a silky sheet of linen. "People from New York say 'it's like buttah,'" jokes Lippo.

"You can't just go to the mall and get one of these," says Lippo, explaining that it takes a weaver three to four months to finish one hat.

The prices are synonymous with wearable works of art. The Panama Hat Company sells regular models for about $60 while its super finos go for around $2,000. Lippo has even seen super finos retailing for up to $20,000.

Flaunt Your Fedora

Teddy Roosevelt wore the original optimo style, with its distinctive center ridge.

The fedora style -- with the standard pinched crown -- is the most timeless, while the short-brimmed Panamas are in with the younger MTV generation, says Lippo.

Women often prefer the classic Breton style, with shallow crown and wide brim, according to Black' s site, which states, "The Breton is the Panama-hat equivalent of the simple black dress."

The Panama has held its own throughout the years, but it's really coming back now because of people's valid concerns about too much exposure to the sun and skin cancer. "If you have to wear a hat, you want to wear something nice," Lippo points out.

And you're not likely to make a faux pas with a Panama. They go well with a linen suit or jeans.

Durability is also a key feature of Panamas -- it's said that you can roll up a good

super fino

and pass it through a wedding ring. Lippo has stood in pain and watched it done, but if you value your Panama, "

por favor

, don't do it!" he pleads. They can get wrinkled and lose their shape after too many foldings.

Also, when tipping your hat to a lovely lady (or gentleman), don't pinch it. This can warp the hat as well. Rather, Lippo recommends that you hold it gently by the brim.

Lippo has held an intact Panama hat from the 1800s, so he's serious when he says they can last a lifetime if properly taken care of.

As the weather finally heats up, nothing will keep you cooler -- and say classy -- better than a Panama hat. Get one before the craft is extinct.

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