Ever notice how every airport, tourist trap, and hotel gift shop is trying to sell you some kind of hat? That’s because a hat is local. In a globalized world where McDonald’s is universal and Duty Free in Dubai sells the exact same sunglasses and chocolate as Duty Free in Detroit, it’s nice to know that there are certain things (like hats) that you can still only find in certain far-flung destinations. Once upon a time, the hats hanging in the back of your closet said loads about where you’ve been and what you’re been up to, especially if you have the real deal. Read and learn:
Fez This red felt hat may be named after the tourist-loving Moroccan city of Fes, but it’s traditionally found all across the former Ottoman empire as well as much of the Muslim world. Worn by: dancing monkeys, Muammar al-Qaddafi, bellhops in Cairo. Cheap knock-offs: The Shriners and some Istanbul bazaars. The Real Deal: Moroccan hatmakers, markets in Cyprus and the Balkans, the Turkish army.
Panama hat A finely handwoven straw hat still made in Ecuador, even though Panama takes all the credit. Worn by: Teddy Roosevelt,Panama Jack, and the poor laborers who dug the Panama Canal. Cheap knock-off: Paper imitations are made in China and sell for little while lesser-quality imitations are made and sold all over Panama for under $30. The Real Deal: Like sheets, what counts in authentic Panama hats is thread count. The tighter the weave, the better the quality (real Panama Hats will hold water and have more than 1,000 fibers per square inch). Hats must be made in Ecuador from the toquilla plant and have a black silk band around the base. Buy at fine shops in Panama, in Ecuador, or else for several thousand dollars at Christie’s in London.Pith helmet Yep, just like the ones the old explorers used to wear as they swatted flies away from their face in the Congo. Originally made from cork covered in canvas, the classical pith helmet has graduated into an elaborate accessory for spiffy uniforms all across the British empire. Worn by: Dr. Livingstone, Bangkok policemen. Cheap knock-offs: Johannesburg airport,Vietnam. The Real Deal: best found in antique shops and some old English granny’s attic, though certain safari suppliers make a darn good attempt.
Sombrero Says ¡Mexico! more than tequila and food poisoning. Huge and silly, the hat makes a lot more sense when you’re in Mexico and trying to stay out of the sun. Worn by: Mariachi bands, drunk college students, people passing through Miami airport. Cheap knock-offs: Available widely in Cancun, Tijuana, and Ciudad Juarez. The Real Deal: Made in Mexico from either woven straw or stiffened felt.
Beret The classic French felt cap was born in the Pyrenees and has gone global due to fashion magazines. Worn by: wannabe artists, paramilitaries, Monica Lewinsky, Basque separatists, gauchos in Patagonia, and Che Guevara (this hat gets around). Cheap knock-offs: Raspberry-colored–the kind you find in a second-hand store. Also sold at Euro Disney and from tables on Rue d’Arcole on the île de la cité in Paris. (Clue: if it says Paris in glitter script, it’s not real.) The Real Deal: the basque hatmaker “Boinas Elósegui” still makes authentic berets (or boinas in Spanish), as does Tolosa Tupida in Argentina. Make sure it says 100% wool on the label.
Nón lá A symbol of Vietnam itself, the simple-yet-serene nón lá is that conical straw hat worn by Asians in rice paddies everywhere, giving that mysterious illusion that people have triangles for heads. Cheap knock-offs: China owns the market share on these hats, both real and fake, so look for the ones the locals buy and wear (oddly, the hipsters haven’t latched onto this one, yet). The Real Deal: Rural Vietnamese markets.
Shapka (Russia) The fur shapka (or ushanka) is not just an ironic, silly holdover of Cold War aesthetic. When in Russia in the winter, fur wrapped around the head does wonders and millions of people still wear them. Worn by: indie rock stars (ear-flaps down), Vladimir Putin‘s security detail, Cheap knock-offs: Souvenir stands in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. These days, if it’s got a Soviet emblem on it, it’s made in China and is 100% fake. The Real Deal: Your policy on fur aside, high-quality shapkas are made with silver fox pelts, cost a small fortune, and are considered lifetime investments. Still, real shapkas can be made with any fur: rabbit, raccoon, mink, and even dog. In the good old days, you could get a hatmaker to sew you one for a few American dollars–those days are now long gone.
Tweed cap “Top o’ the mornin’” sounds less offensive when you’re tipping a tweed cap. Again, here’s another hat that makes great sense once you confront the local weather–in this case, the blustery drizzle of Scotland and Ireland where tweed was born. Worn by: incorrigible hipsters,your grandfather, college professors. Cheap knock-offs: H&M fall fashion line (every year), also J. Crew and J.C. Penneys. The Real Deal: In Donegal, try Magee of Ireland, who claim to have invented one of the standard tweeds. Also, any non-chain high street shop in the UK where some royal insignia is sewed on the inside of the cap. Don’t overlook British second-hand charity shops, which are like little tweed goldmines.
Andean hand-knit gorro Engineered to make you look like as adorable and non-violent as Droopy, these cute woolen hats with little ear flaps and ties are still wildly popular among Canadian snowboarding bums, as well as serious people with serious glasses. Still, they’re made for the cold, high-altitude climate of the Andes and South America’s Altiplano. Worn by: indie bands touring in the fall, at least one sensitive character in the last indie movie you saw, the Peruvian flute bands playing in Paris and everywhere else. Cheap knock-offs: Gap, J. Crew, Oxfam & any other feelgood fair trade, 100% organic kind of place. If The Real Deal: In Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru or Chile. If you’re a purist, you should get the 100% alpaca wool. Again, avoid the ones with words spelled out in block-knit letters, e.g. BOLIVIA!
Keffiyeh But is it a hat, or is it a scarf? To an almost nauseating degree, the Arab keffiyeh has moved even beyond the tourist claptrap and become a mainstream American college dormitory fashion accessory. Whether showing solidarity with Palestinians or keeping the blowing sand from going down your shirt, this versatile wrap/hat makes a lot more sense in the desert. Worn by: Practically everyone, including the Olsen twins. Cheap knock-offs: Thailand, Venice Beach, 7th Avenue street sellers, and even Urban Outfitters. The Real Deal: Jordan, Palestine, and across the Middle East.