Straw hats are a casual and carefree form of headgear in the West, suggesting idle summer days when a cool covering to protect the head against the sun is a requirement of civilized society. In other cultures, though, such as those in Asia, straw hats are used for the same protective purposes, but the wearers are usually workers toiling in fields.

Because of the wide availability and low cost of straw and grass, which can be plaited to create cordage known as sennit, straw hats are thought to be one of the oldest types of hats. European artwork from the Middles Ages depicts people wearing straw hats, while palm-leaf hats in Central and South America date even earlier.

By the 18th century, well-to-do European women had embraced the country styling of straw hats. The peasant look became fashionable, as wide-brimmed straw hats and high-crowned straw bonnets were adopted by the upper classes. Straw cloth was also employed for its country look and ability to keep heads cool.

In England, especially in the Bedfordshire area about an hour’s drive north of London, straw hatmakers became a powerful industry that was intensely competitive with woolen hatmakers farther north. Like woolen hats, straw hats were blocked and formed in traditional shapes. There, though, the similarities ended, since straw hats were more conducive to naturalist looks than their felt counterparts.

By the 1870s, small straw bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats alike were loaded up with feathers and other decorative embellishments. At the same time, simple straw boaters with flat tops and brims came into vogue for both men and women. The origins of the design are difficult to pin down, but the Venetian gondoliers, who tied brightly colored ribbons around the crowns of their hats, were probably their inspiration.

Around the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, another straw-hat industry was finding its footing in Ecuador. There, the Panama hat was born.

Unlike boaters and bonnets, which took their shapes in part from the properties of their materials, Panama hats were more like straw versions of felt hats, from fedoras to bowlers. They were woven from Toquilla plant fibers, which could be blocked and shaped into styles such as the Optimo, a straight-sided crown, with a ridge running down the length of its top. A good one could even hold water...

As the 20th century dawned, boaters were a requirement for Vaudevillians, yachtsmen, and horseracing enthusiasts, while politicians appeared to favor Panamas—Theodore Roosevelt was famously photographed wearing one in 1906 on a visit to the Panama Canal. By then, many of these hats featured black bands, which had graced Panama hats since the 1901 death of Queen Victoria.

Naturally these hats entered the culture. Just as Fred Astaire’s “Top Hat” had cemented the top hat’s reputation as a mark of elegance and sophistication, plays like “The Music Man,” which was made into a film in 1962, placed the straw hat in our collective consciousness as attire for hucksters and con men.

Men are usually associated with Panamas and boaters, but women took to straw hats, too. In the late Victorian period, straw cloth was often made into simple spoon bonnets, which were then decorated with artificial flowers. White straw bonnets were frequently adorned with embroidered netting on their wide brims. As for the color of all this straw, it ranged from blackberry to lilac.

During the Edwardian era, straw hats for women were worn for playing tennis, while in the 1920s, flapper-style cloche hats woven of straw were considered every bit as smart as those formed of felt. Sometimes the brims of these hats would extend straight downward, accentuating the hat’s bell shape. Other times, the hats would be worn at rakish angles, with upturned brims to reveal the eyes, or maybe just one.

Umbrella-brimmed sun hats in bonnet and skimmer styles were soon the summertime rage. By 1939, many of these hats would be known as “Gone with the Wind” hats, named after the wide hats worn by that film’s heroine, Scarlet O’Hara. Schoolgirl boaters tied with wide black ribbons were also fashionable, as were hats in the Queen Anne style, which featured a wide brim in the front that tapered to a narrow width in the back.

By the 1940s and ’50s, straw bowlers and ones made out of brightly colored cellophane straw gained currency. High-crowned straw hats were also popular during these years, in colors ranging from crimson to black. And by the 1960s, hatters were producing dome, beach, and cloche hats in creams, lacquered hues, and patriotic blends of red, white, and blue.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Des Chapeaux

Des Chapeaux

A French tribute to women's hats and other headwear from the 1940s... primarily magazine images, with some commenta… [read review or visit site]

American Hatpin Society

American Hatpin Society

Who knew there was so much to hatpin collecting? This site is all about great hatpin images - from recent hatpin co… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage (post Wwii) 7 1/4 Gold Straw Gentleman's Woven Panama HatVintage 1950s 7-1/8 Twistex Straw Men's Ventilated Fedora Hat GrayHelen Kaminski Black Straw HatTrue Vintage Antique 1920 -30s Peach Straw Cloche Flapper Hat W Rainbow StripesJ.crew Panama Hat Style23793 White Size S/mVintage Stetson Panama Straw Hat Vintage Thin Leather Band Xl 7-1/2 - 7 5/8Vintage Panama Straw Hat By Churchill Ltd 7-3/8~ Vtg Adam Vegas Style Ecru Color Flicker Milan Straw Fedora Hat 7 3/840's Straw Asymmetrical Hat Trimmed With Maroon Feathers & BowsNew American Hat Co 15 Star Wheat Straw 5" Brim Cowboy Hat Shaped 7-3/8 LoNew American Hat Co 15 Star Wheat Straw 4.5" Brim Cowboy Hat Shaped 7-3/8 LoFab Antique " Boater " Men's Straw Hat " Mac Lane Hats Ny " Collegiate Hat BandVintage Dobbs Men's Panama Straw Hat 7 3/8 Leon Redbone Autograph Inside Neat!Vintage Dobbs Straw Hat Made In Florence Italy Size 7 56 HatMens-straw-boater-skimmer-hat-barbershop-quartet- Great Gatsby Made In ItalyStunning 40's Natural Straw Wide Brim Tilt Hat W/lace & Pink Flowers Vintage Woman's Straw Hat W Hat Pin Saks Fifth Ave. Woven Ruffles Sequined Pin New Charlie 1 Horse Wild Bird Fedora Size Small - Flaw In BackNew American Hat Co Sand Natural Crossbred Straw Cowboy Hat 7-1/8 Lo ShapedVintage 1940's Straw Hat W/flowers In RedVtg 60s Bond Straw Fedora Hat Imported Sz 7 3/8 Geunine MilanNew Resistol 10x Boone Straw Cowboy Hat Size 7 W/ DamageHelen Kaminski Asya Straw Hat New With Tags And BoxNicholas Oakwell London Lovely Vintage Women Styled Fine Straw Blue Wide BrimEight Vintage Hats 1950s - 1960s Fabric Straw Feather Velvet & Leather Vg To EvcRag And Bone 'summer' Straw Fedora Hat LargeVintage Genuine Montecristi Panama Churchill Ltd Optimo Long Oval Straw Hat Lilly Pulitzer Straw Hat- TargetVtg Malrov Fifth Ave Standard Mens Straw Boater Skimmer Gatsby Hat Ribbon 6 7/8Mens Pantropic Classic Cuenca Fedora Panama Hat Natural Color Xl Upf 50+ Vintage Jf S Tula Made In Mexico Straw Hat With Leather StingVtg 60s Straw Fedora Hat Sz 7 3/8 12 Neat Ca 1900 Straw Hat Cleaner Envelopes Walla Walla Wa Green Jackson Drug CoNwt Scalla Concho Ranch Rodeo Cowboy Sexy Dance Cowgirl Western Womens Hat MOld Fieldcraft Marshall Field Straw Hat 7 3/8 Long OvalWomen's Roxy Straw Beach Hat W/beaded Detail And Orange WeavingWomen's Casual Wide Brim Soft Felt Black Cap Straw Floppy Cloche Sun Beach HatsSleek 40's Blk Straw Tilt Hat W/turned Up Brim And Colorful Side Velvet BowsNew Resistol Straw Cowboy Hat, Big Spender 7 1/8 LStand-out 40's Red Straw Wide Brim Hat W Blk Ribbon Trim & Red RosesRag And Bone Flat Top Hat In Black Size MediumMen's Panama Jack Toyo Straw Hat Fedora -- Size Xxl WhiteStraw Cone Shape Garden Fishing Sun Rice Vietnamese Chinese Bamboo Hat CapsMon Cheri Church, Dress Hat Straw Black And White Beautiful !!!J.crew Women's Straw Fedora Sun Hat Nwt Peter Grimm Jaws Straw Style Lifeguard Sun Hat Cap One SizeHelen Kaminski Sydney- Australia 100% Raffia Straw Colored Hat With Black Bow Nwot Authentic Helen Kaminski Raffia Braided Straw Hat W/ribbon MadagascarBarneys New York Nwt Tracy Watts Women's "bridget" Hat/original HatboxNew Stetson Twin Raffia Pork Pie Natural Straw Fedora Hat Size Large5 Vintage 50's Women's Hats, Black Raffia Straw, Yellow, Pill Box, Skull Cap Toucan Collection Womans Natural Straw Hat, Wide Brim, Dome. MediumVintage Resistol Hat Made In Hb Allen Size 7 1/8 Hat Wadesboro#307 New Beige Tan Vintage Style Straw Fedora Sun Hat Short Brim Buckle Band M/l1940's Vintage Ladies Chic Little Ivory Summer Hat With Whispy FeatherMen's Bailey U-rollit Straw Cowboy Hat Size 7 - WhiteBeige Women's Summer Beach Straw Hat Sweet Butterfly Cap Lady Elegant Sun HatVtg 40s New York Creation Brown Straw Brimmed Tilt Doll Hat W/ Millinery FlowerStratton Self Forming S-36 Western Style Cattleman Straw Hat 7 1/4 Tan NewAthleta Dark Brown 100% Raffia Straw Wide Brim Sun Hat With Turquoise Accents