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    

Eugenia Kim Ss13 Rose Gold Suede & Feather Straw Fedora Hat £350 Net-a-porterOld Lavaques Panama Hat Vintage Straw From Ecuador 7 3/8 Men Or Women StrawVintage Org$3.95 30-40s Mens Genuine Panama Stetson Straw Fedora Swing Hat 7&3/8Lot 15 Vtg Ladies Hats Straw Wide Brim Mod Bubble Bucket Floppy Great For PartyKris Jenner Black Saks Fifth Avenue Light Brown Straw Floppy Hat No Size NwtLot Of 9 Ladies Vintage Hats Cloches 20s 30s 40s 50s Straw Feather Velvet NetVintage 40s Black Straw Floppy Brim Ruffled Heart Hat Netting New York Creation8 Vintage 1940-50s Womens Hats All Florals Most Straw All Good And UniqueBrook Brothers Men’s Straw Boater Hat Sz. 7 1/8 Original 1925 Millinery,hat Making Book,cloches,straws,wire Frames,ribbon TrimsMontecristi Panama Hat Brent Black Bbb Light Cream Size 7Coffee Women's Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat Straw Floppy Elegant Bohemia CapKris Jenner Unlabeled Beige Black Stripe Floppy Sun Hat No SizeLight Coffee Women's Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat Straw Floppy Elegant Bohemia Cap Vintage 7-1/4 Straw Boater Skimmer Men's Summer Hat 1950s Luca's Custom UticaJazzy 20-30 Blk Cloche Hat W/straw Crown, Felt Asym Brim & FeatherWomen Folding Summer Sun Floppy Hat Straw Beach Wide Large Brim Cap BlackChurchill Ltd, 7 3/8 Boater Straw Hat Gray & Red Band, Gatsby, DandyStetson~open Road Shantung Panama 6x Straw Cowboy/western Hat, Size 7 3/8Free Ship Wide Large Brim Floppy Fold Summer Beach Sun Straw Beach Derby Hat1800s Victorian Civil War Era Bonnet Hat 19th Century Straw Silk Metallic TrimStetson Boater Skimmer Men's Straw Hat Size 7 " Pink Band Vintage EraAll Saints Allsaints Rivage Straw Trilby Hat Rrp £40 Size M LWomen Fedora Trilby Beach Sun Pp Braid Cowboy Straw Gangster Panama Hat KhakiLot Of 9 Ladies Vintage Hats 20s 30s 40s 50s 60s Straw Feather Velvet Hat LotNew Hot Classy Summer Sun Beach Floppy 6" Wide Brim Bow Band Derby Hat BlackCabo Wabo Tequila Black Straw Cowboy Hat.Scarecrow Hat Wizard Of Oz Straw Adult Halloween Costume AccessoryNew Beige Womens Men Fedora Gangster Cap Summer Beach Sun Straw Panama Hat GolfOrvis Straw HatRice White Ladies Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat Straw Floppy Elegant Bohemia Cap UPolo Ralph Lauren Straw Fedora Summer Madras Plaid Preppy Beach S M Hat Blue NwtCool Blue & Brown Neon Strip Trilby Fedora Summer Beach Sun Straw Cowboy Hat Cap1x Cute Children Boys Girls Straw Hat Western Cowboy Sun Hat Cap Costume Gift White Unisex Braid Fedora Trilby Gangster Cap Summer Beach Sun Straw Panama HatsLot Of 30 Ladies Vintage Hats Cloches 50s 60s 70s Straw Wool Feather VelvetVintage Straw Fedora Hat 22" Inner CircumferenceWomen's Vintage Hat Lot Of 10 Beret Tam Church Lace Velvet Straw1940s Mitzie Pink Tulle Black Cellophane Straw Floral Tilt Top Hat FascinatorResistol Straw Cowboy Hat George Strait Style Size 7 Practically New!!!Gaint Zapata Straw Spanish Mexican Fiesta Sombrero Hat Adult Costume AccessoryVintage Estate Knox New York Straw Hat Super Fine Hand FinishedCool Camel Foldable Straw Hat Cowboy Beach Summer Large Brimmed Male Sun Shade American Rag New White Woven Printed Banded Straw Fedora S/m BhfoBorsalino Mens Natural Straw Golf /plantation Style Hat LargeLot Of 10 Unique Womens Vintage Hats & Nettings Mink Pheasant Straw Flowers !!Vintage Olney Panama Hat Approx Size 6Brixton Fedora Straw HatSummer Bassic Deep Brown Straw Hat Cap Fedora Wide Brim Black Band UnisexCream Unisex Fedora Trilby Gangster Cap Summer Beach Sun Straw Panama Hat,1x12- Lovely Vintage Hats- Feather Wool Felt Straw Fruit Faux Leopard Ny CreationLarry Mahan Milano Opli Western Cowboy Hat 10x New Sz. 6 7/8Jeans Blue On Straw Kentucky Derby Frank Olive Wide Brim Ladies Women Church HatVintage Victorian Style Floral Straw Womans Hat With BoxVintage Black Straw Hat Christine Original New York Red Ribbon 40's 50'sBrown Unisex Fedora Trilby Gangster Cap Summer Beach Sun Straw Panama Vogue HatsVintage Womens Black Straw HatNew Summer Bassic Light Brown Straw Hat Cap Fedora Wide Brim Black Band UnisexNew White Womens Men Fedora Gangster Cap Summer Beach Sun Straw Panama Hat GolfVtg 40s 50s Natural Straw Church Hat W Roses Netting N Satin Trim