Men's vintage straw hats are a classy, comfortable alternative to felt dress hats and modern caps. Straw has been a popular high-quality material used in the making of men's hats for many years. Today, straw hats have largely fallen by the wayside for all but the daring, though they are starting to make a comeback with other vintage fashion trends.
In the West, hats have been made from straw since the Classical period, when summer straw hats were worn by the ancient Greeks. These hats were designed solely to shield the face and eyes from the sun, and usually appeared in a wide-brimmed or cone shape. Wide-brimmed straw hats were called by the general name for hat, "petasus," and were often worn with a neck string that allowed the wearer to let the hat dangle down the back. Straw hats remained in wide use throughout the Middle Ages, when men of all classes wore a variety of styles, but fell out of favour among men as stiff fur felt dress hats grew in popularity and overtook the age of industry. In the late 1800s, men's straw hats were revived by new summer styles that dominated the turn of the century.
One of the most common types of vintage straw hat is the boater, which was widely worn by both men and women in the summers of the early 1900s. The hat originally came from rowing uniforms, and usually featured a flat crown, small brim and wide ribbon hatband. Men wore the boater tilted slightly on the head. Another straw hat at the time was the Panama hat, a fine, wide-brimmed style that continues to be made in Ecuador today. The Panama hat became wildly popular and dominated the first half of the 20th century after a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt wearing a Panama hat was shown around the world. Many other kinds of vintage hats can also come made in straw instead of fur felt.
Men's vintage straw hats can be made in a stiff, hard straw design or a soft straw design, depending on the style of the hat. Boaters are usually hard straw, while Panama hats are made of soft straw. Soft straw hats are made to be more comfortable and to allow air to flow around the head. The best straw weaves can be folded or rolled up and will then bounce back into their original shape. Top-of-the-line straw types include Madagascar, New Braids, hemp, Hanoki, Bangkok, Baku, Leghorn, Peanit and open-weave Panama. All quality soft straw types are woven together, softened in a hot water or steam process, and formed on hat forms, blocks or by hand.
The age of men's vintage straw hats can be easily determined by their type, materials and condition. Straw hats from before the mid-1800s are likely to be extremely brittle and show some degree of damage. If not at least a little brittle, a hat may be a reproduction and not a collectable. After this period, straw hats should be in fairly good to perfect condition. Hat materials should be carefully examined to decide whether a hat is a high-quality, handwoven piece or a cheaper mass-produced version, which will be stiff and may not breathe well.
Real vintage straw hats may require some special care. Very old stiff-straw hats have likely lost much of their original hard finish, but should not be refinished, as alterations devalue the hat. Brittle hats should not be worn. A vintage hat should never be cleaned with water; if anything, the hat can be gently vacuumed with a cheesecloth-covered handheld vacuum cleaner. Hats should be stored in a clean, dry place inside a hatbox, and the hat itself should be lightly stuffed with tissue paper to help retain its original shape. If a straw hat has any decorative feathers, it must be protected from moths.
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