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    

Brian May Signed Smithbilt Calgary Hat - St Mungo's Broadway Woolly Hat DayHelen Kaminski Straw Raffia Hat Medium Coffee Brown Unworn One SizeVintage Straw Boater Hat Size 7 3/8Vintage Men's Colonial Panama Hat Optimo? Made In Montecristi - Ecuador 1920s Early 30s Vintage Floppy Wide Brim Straw Glamour Hat Borsalino Straw FedoraVintage Hat 1920's Cloche Ivory Orange Floral Antique CollectibleMens Vintage "baxter" Straw Hat_barbershop Quartet_boaterRose Red Lady Girls Wide Large Brim Fold Summer Beach Sun Straw Beach Derby CapExceptional Rare Victorian Post Civil War 1867 Straw Bonnet Hat Silk BowRag & Bone Straw Hat - Small - Made In UsaVintage Straw Hat Boater Skimmer Barbershop Size 7 1/8Charlie 1 Horse 40 Star Sz 7-1/8 Genuine Shantung Straw Cowboy Hat~never Worn~nrAntique Edwardian Early 1920s Vintage Rainbow Ribbon Band Straw Boater HatVintage Men's Straw Hat...cavanagh Hats Of New York...original Box...7 3/8...A115 Red Women Church Wedding Kentucky Derby Wide Brim Straw Summer HatVintage Lot 9 Ladies Hats + Hat Box Tulle Veil Straw Bows Hat PinsVintage Hat Straw Flowers Pink White 1950's EucVintage Style Biltmore Stetson/fedora Hat 7 1/8 Must See!Vintage Mr. John Jr. Wide Brim Straw Hat With Fabric FlowersDark Blue Lady Girls Wide Large Brim Fold Summer Beach Sun Straw Beach Derby CapNew In Box Men's Stetson 81 Natural Cinch (cb) Straw Cowboy Hat Size 7 1/4Stetson Straw Hat - Fedora - Panama Large (7 1/4 To 7 3/8)Fashion Womens' Black Wide Large Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat With A Flower Pink Lady Girl Wide Large Brim Fold Summer Beach Sun Straw Beach Derby CapLight Coffee Women's Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat Straw Floppy Elegant Bohemia Cap Beige Ladies Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat Straw Floppy Elegant Bohemia CapLot C- 10 Vtg Women's Spring, Summer Hats- Straw & FabricVintage Men's Two Tone Straw Boater Skimmer Hat By Wright Straws Sz 6 7/8Raffaello Bettini New Tan Straw Contrast Trim Fringe Bucket Hat L BhfoRice White Lots Straw Ladies Cap Women Girls Large Brim Summer Beach Sun HatRaffaello Bettini Tan Straw Contrast Trim Cowboy Hat O/s BhfoNew + Tags Billabong 'bouquet' Ladies Natural / Pink Straw Fedora Hat Size M-lFashion Summer Classic Solid Beige Straw Hat Cap Fedora Black Band UnisexFree Ship Wide Large Brim Floppy Fold Summer Beach Sun Straw Beach Derby HatVintage Stetson Cream / White Straw Western Cowboy HatVintage Hat Straw Holiday Green Red Fruit Decoration Checkered BowRaffaello Bettini New Tan Contrast Trim Hat Straw Fedora L BhfoVintage Cowgirl Hat Straw Red Western Flowers Valentine 1950'sRaffaello Bettini New Tan Striped Hat Straw Fedora O/s BhfoGorgeous Nib Charlie 1 Horse Sc Size 7 Cowboy Hat Houston Livestock Rodeo! Lot Of 13 Vintage Ladies Hats Florals Straw Wool Velvet Fur NetStetson Straw Cowboy Hat Size 7 1/8 ~ 4x ~ Natural Color With Jb Stetson PinYellow Lots Straw Ladies Cap Women Girls Large Brim Summer Beach Sun HatTwo Original Panama Jack 100% Straw Hat Tropical Band Fedora S/mSky Blue Lady Wide Large Brim Floppy Fold Summer Beach Sun Straw Beach Derby HatHopkins Fifth Ave Straw Boater Hat Size 7 1/2,roaring 20's, Gatsby,etcRaffaello Bettini New Tan Straw Contrast Trim Cowboy Hat O/s BhfoBlack Lady's Wide Large Brim Floppy Fold Summer Beach Sun Straw Beach Derby HatLight Coffee Women's Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat Straw Floppy Elegant Bohemia Cap Summer Bassic Deep Brown Straw Hat Cap Fedora Wide Brim Black Band UnisexVintage Fine Straw Master Mode Shower Proof Hat Boater Barber Shop Quartet 6 7/8A115 Brown Women Church Wedding Kentucky Derby Wide Brim Straw Summer HatVintage Resistol "self Conforming" Western Cowboy Hat Long Oval 7 1/4Hot Mens Womens Foldable Straw Cap Panama Shape-style Summer Sun Beach Hat 1pcNew White Womens Men Fedora Gangster Cap Summer Beach Sun Straw Panama Hat GolfVintage Hat Straw Easter Spring Bonnet Flowers Chics Theatre CostumeVintage Wide Brim Navy Straw Hat With Roses Black Women Summer Straw Headless Foldable Beach Wide Brim Sun Hat Visor CapHelen Kaminski Woven Straw Summer Hat 3.5" Brim