Penman No. 52: A Man of Many Hats


Penman for Monday, June 24, 2013

I’VE BEEN writing about writing for the past eight weeks, so I hope my readers will indulge me this personal break, this little foray into male plumage.

You’ll probably notice that, this week, I’m sporting a new picture for this column—the first time I’ve changed it in years. I liked that old picture (taken by Raymund Isaac) and had been using it whenever I was asked for one, but I think the time has come to be honest with myself and my readers and to admit that, well, I just don’t look like that anymore. I’ve grown—and I look—considerably older, though happily also a bit leaner, thanks to my diabetes-induced diet-and-exercise regimen.

The most visible change in my new avatar, however, is the hat—one of a few I’ve been regularly wearing over the past year. People have been wondering why I’ve adopted what seems to be a foppish affectation—a practice I share with other writer-friends like Rio Almario and Teo Antonio; notably, National Artists Bien Lumbera, Frankie Jose, Bencab, Billy Abueva, and the late NVM Gonzalez have been known to wear hats or caps of one kind or other. I don’t mean to suggest, by citing such exalted company, that wearing a hat will boost my literary stock in any way, although I do hope, in secret, to be taken a little more seriously by dumping all that straw on my balding pate.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve been wearing hats for more than 20 years now. I picked up my first fedora from the Milwaukee Hat Store back in 1989 or so, when I was a graduate student there—and if you know how bitter Midwestern winters can get, you’ll understand that it was more for practical protection than about making a fashion statement. The fashion side came in choosing a felt fedora over a baseball cap, going for a ‘40s or ‘50s look over a ‘90s one (I do keep a small hoard of baseball caps for my morning walks around the campus). I still keep a felt fedora for when I have to travel to the West during the cold months, but here in the steaming tropics, felt (“felt” simply means mashed wool pulp) isn’t too practical, so that a straw panama hat makes more sense. It was one such panama I brought home with me in 1991 when I finished my studies, and I wore that hat to UP graduations for years, until it got lost somewhere.

Here’s a bit of Panama Hat 101: the best panama hats aren’t made in Panama at all, but in Ecuador—in a town called Montecristi, and another called Cuenca (the best hats come from Montecristi, but the most come from Cuenca). It’s said that the black-banded straw hat we now call a panama got its name when President Theodore Roosevelt was pictured wearing one during a visit to the Panama Canal. There’s no set system of grading panama hats, but the best Montecristis are woven so finely that you can roll them for storage and travel, and they’ll spring back into shape. Depending on fineness and quality of weave, color of straw, and other imponderables, a “panama” (there are many mass-produced ones being passed off for the real thing) can be had for anywhere from $25 to $25,000, the latter made by master weaver Simon Espinal. (Thanks to Brent Black of for all this information.)

The hat I’m wearing in my picture is a Montecristi, but a bargain item I got lucky enough to find on eBay for a lot less than $100. (Yes, I wore it all the way home from Virginia to Manila.) EBay is a great source for hats, watches, and pens—my old-guy passions—but buying a hat is like buying shoes: you need to know your exact size, or even the smartest-looking specimen will bring you nothing but grief. (My hat size can be expressed either as 7-1/2 inches, 61 mm, or Large; of course, even with the numbers on hand, you can expect some issues with fit and finish, so it’s best to buy a hat at a store.)

What do I look for in a hat? A sensible profile—nothing that will make me look like a cowboy, a gangster, or a pop star—and good workmanship. Of course, utility is also important. I have a very light, foldable “vineyard hat” for long days in the hot sun—this was the hat I brought to Batanes—because your sweat just wicks off the fabric; another hat, a thicker canvas one called a Tilley Endurable, is beloved of archaeologists, and boasts of being the best hat in the world, made with “British hardware and Canadian persnicketiness.” Another favorite that’s been with me for about 15 years now is an Australian rancher’s rigid felt hat, an Akubra, whose wide brim provides great protection against sun and rain (and against an opponent’s prying eyes at the poker table).

But let’s face it: like many of life’s imponderables, in buying hats, attraction trumps function most of the time. Last November, on a trip to Melbourne, I had to kill some time while they cleaned my hotel room prior to check-in, and I found myself wandering off to a nearby shopping center and coming face-to-face with a gorgeous hat in the men’s section—it was made not from the traditional, fine toquilla straw, but the somewhat rougher raffia, and it was woven not in Ecuador but Bangladesh, but it was handsomely blocked, and sat perfectly on my head when I tried it, like Napoleon’s crown. A peek at the price tag made me shudder and I put it back on the shelf immediately, and walked out to a balmy Melbourne morning; but the balmier the morning became, the more I convinced myself that a hat was the best and most practical Australian souvenir I could bring home, even if my trip had barely begun, and within the hour I was back in the store, forking over a plastic card for a straw bauble.

I still wear that hat most days, alternating it with the whiter toquilla, which is softer and lighter but also much more fragile. (You can’t wear a toquilla panama in the rain.) I realized what a good choice I had made with the raffia hat when I woke up in a hotel room one morning to find the hat completely drenched by an overnight drip from the airconditioner above; a few hours’ drying, and it was good as new.

I often wonder when and why we Pinoys stopped wearing hats, in this eminently hat-friendly weather; if you take a look at any street scene from the 1930s, you’ll see Filipino men, rich and poor alike, wearing hats. Here and there—in places like Baliuag and Lucban—you can still buy a good locally made hat, but we have a long way to go to catch up with the weavers of Montecristi and Cuenca. With cheap Chinese-made baseball caps in abundance, I’m sure not too many people care. That’s all right—I’ll just keep wearing my silly hat to my senior’s sickbed, then tip it to my nurse when the time comes.


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