STRAW POLL The functional, cools hats are back with a vengeance


Seattle --Depending on your preference, straw hats today can make you look like the Godfather in gardening gear or a rakish riverboat gambler. They can be made from the leaf fibers of an African palm or woven from parts of the coconut tree. And they can come from such faraway places as China and Italy.

But regardless of which exotically named style you choose, chances are you won't be the only one out there wearing it.

Straw hats are back with a vengeance, according to hat merchants.

"Men's hats stress function," said Paul Ferry, president of Byrnie Utz Men's Hat Store. "What you want from a straw hat is shade from the sun without being too hot. Unlike cold-weather hats, which keep you warm on a cold day, straw hats are made to allow the body heat to escape."

Kim Koch, the divisional buyer for Resistol Hats, the Texas-based company known nationally for Stetsons, said straw hats are "doing fantastic."

The Resistol buyer also credits the resurging popularity of the hats to an updating of the traditional designs, which gives them a more Western look, and the influence of celebrities like golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, who have taken to wearing them.

Then there is the practical consideration: fear of the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet rays, which have been scientifically linked to skin cancer.

"Because of the prevalence of skin cancer, there are more doctors recommending that their patients wear hats," Mr. Ferry said.

But one sign that hats are making real inroads is their growing popularity among younger people. Mr. Ferry estimates that half of his customers are under 35 (10 percent are women). In 1975, when he started at the store, about 90 percent of the hat buyers were over 35.

Despite the wide variety of straw hats available today, the most popular remains the Panama hat, which comes in a dozen different styles, Mr. Ferry said. At Byrnie Utz, it accounted for half of the 100 dozen straw hats sold last year.

Like military intelligence or the non-dairy creamer, the popular Panama hat is misleadingly named. As most hatters know -- and most everyone else does not -- the hats don't come from the land of Manuel Noriega. They never have. They still don't.

The hats, which were introduced to the world by the men who worked on the Panama Canal, come from Ecuador and a tiny area of Colombia, Mr. Ferry said. While the raw materials are gathered and woven in those countries, the hats are usually formed and finished in the United States.

Panama hats are made from the toquilla herb, a wild grass. The grass is stripped to its inner layer and then woven. It used to be believed that the raw material was woven underwater, but the toquilla is simply wetted frequently during weaving so the material won't crack.

The fibers are woven in slightly different ways in the various regions of Ecuador. Like a detective studying a fingerprint, a trained eye can tell from looking at the center of a hat which region the hat is from, Mr. Ferry said.

The Monte Cristi, named after the region in which it is woven, is considered the best by Panama hat connoisseurs. Because these hats are lighter and have the thinnest weave, they can be sold for as high as $500. Typically, most Panamas cost from $30 to $90.

One of the reasons Panama hats are so popular is their flexibility. Some can be rolled up and tossed into a briefcase, while others are good enough for a country club barbecue.

Although Panama hats are the best known, a wide variety of straw hats, each just as exotically named, divide the remaining market.

There are the borsalino hats, from Italy, which were the preferred fedoras of Capone-era mobsters; the raffia, made from an African palm called the rafhia ruffia that's grown on Madagascar; the seagrass, which is made with thicker strands woven to allow more sunlight through; and the fisol, a tightly woven hat so light and thin that it's transparent.

While the Panama hat is woven from the center outward, the raffia is made with half-inch strips, about 20 feet long, that are coiled into a circle in layers that are then sewn together.

Then there is the shantung, similar to the Panama, but machine-woven and more durable, though less cool; the coconut, made from coconut twine and usually shaped to have a circular top with a little moat; and the milan, structured like the raffia but with a smaller strand.

Boater hats, once standard at political conventions and the dominant straw hat before the Panama hat invasion, are also available, although the forecast for their future is far from sunny.

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