Summer Straw: A Look Into Men’s Summer Hats


For centuries, men from every culture across the globe have used head coverings for protection, cultural identification, style, and as symbols of rank and position in society. Still today, men wear crowns and helmets, religious and academic caps, cowboy hats and fedoras. The popularity of men’s hats and certain styles may shift from time to time as their functionality becomes obsolete along with a change in trend, but hats will always be a part of our fashion arsenal.

In recent years, men’s fashion has shifted to the more formal and tailored look, influenced by the ‘gentleman’ style of the early 1900s. Back then, men wore hats everyday, for every occasion, and in the summer, men wore straw hats. Lightweight and durable, available in many different styles and all about fashion, men’s straw hats are primed for a comeback.

One of the first widely popular men’s straw hats was the classic Boater hat. Created in Italy in the 1880s and named after the gondoliers who first wore them, the popularity of the boater hat quickly spread throughout France, England, and the United States, and lasted through the 1950s. Its popularity was so widespread that it became known as ‘the hat of the people,’ worn by everyone from boaters and yachtsmen to Vaudeville and Broadway actors, to members of every social class. The boater was even (unofficially) part of the FBI agent’s pre-war uniform.

The boater (1), also known as a basher or skimmer, is constructed of soft, yet durable sennit straw. It has a hard flat top and a short, hard flat brim, with a natural straw color and a ribbon around the crown. The boater can be worn formal or informal and is considered ‘the’ summer straw hat.

A modification of the boater is the Milan flattop (2). Made of soft Italian straw, the Milan flattop is similar in size and shape to the boater, except for its soft brim, and is available in a variety of colors. It has a more informal look and relaxed feel than the boater. It was popular with musicians, particularly amongst the jazz scene, and artists, such as Frank Lloyd Wright. While the boater stands out as a real fashion statement, the Milan Flattop blends more seamlessly into contemporary style.

If the flat top style is not for you, check out the Panama hat (3). The Panama hat is a traditional, big brimmed straw hat from Ecuador. ’49ers began to pick up these hats as they ventured to the West Coast, but they quickly gained popularity in America when President Theodore Roosevelt wore one during his visit to the construction of the Panama Canal. Unlike many other straw hat styles, the Panama hat has enjoyed mainstream popularity ever since.

A true Panama hat is actually hand woven in Ecuador. They became known as Panama hats because they were traded to Americans and Europeans who worked, visited, or passed through the Panama Canal. Locally, these hats are known as jipijapas, named after a town in Ecuador where they are traded. Today, the quality of Panama hats varies greatly, depending on who is making the hat and what process is employed. True Panama hats are known as “Montecristi superfinos.” There are only a few weavers remaining in Ecuador with the skill to weave one, taking about four months to weave and costing nearly $1,000, but they will last you a lifetime and never crack.

The Optimo (4) offers a slightly different take on the Panama hat. The Optimo is actually a style of Panama hat, often referred to as ‘the natural’ because it was one of the first variant Panama hat styles. It has a natural off-white color and is designed with a crease down the crown, which was created in response to the natural crease that would eventually form when men would roll up their Panama hats.

The Optimo has that same lightweight, relaxed look of a traditional Panama hat, but stands a little higher on the head and has a slightly rounder crown. Charlie Chan wore an Optimo hat, as did Peter O’Toole in The Last Emperor, along with Sean Connery in The Man Who Would be King, and Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca.

The boater, the Milan Flattop, the Panama and the Optimo are all classic summer straw hats. They have been around for over a 100 years, and are timelessly fashionable. However, there are many other straw-hat styles available. These days, almost every style of hat comes in a straw version. You can even find hatters who will custom make any hat style for you. So, whichever style best suits your personality and fits your look, add some timeless fashion to your wardrobe and grab a cool, new summer straw hat.

Check out these hatters:

Meyer the Hatter
Lock & Co.
Optimo Hats
Miller Hats