Many people’s introduction to the Mexican sombrero came from Saturday morning cartoons and the heavily accented mouse Speedy Gonzales. Decades later, in the comic strip “Peanuts,” this unmistakable hat would find its way onto the head of Spike, Snoopy’s brother. Cartoons, live action films and mariachi bands have played a big part in making the sombrero an iconic and in some cases, lighthearted, symbol of Mexico. The real history of the Mexican sombrero hat is rooted more in practicality.
Working out in the sun-drenched fields of Mexico and the southern United States was difficult. There were few trees and there was very little natural protection from the sun. It is believed that Mestizo workers in these hot climates came up with a wide-brimmed straw hat that would keep the sun out of their eyes and faces, in effect, carrying their own bit of shade around with them. Taking the name from “sombre,” the Spanish word for shade, the newly created hat was christened the “sombrero.”
What makes the sombrero such a useful sun shade is its shape. It looks somewhat like an oversized cowboy hat, but with a cone-shaped center. The brim was at least twice as wide, preferably large enough to prevent the sun from reaching any part of the face, neck and a good bit of the shoulders. The chin strap was added to keep the oversized hats from flying away in a stray gust of wind.
The most familiar, and least expensive, type of sombrero is made out of straw. These can be all one color, or be woven out of different colors of dyed straw to create patterns. Brims could be fringed or finished in a closed weave, sometimes with embroidered edges. The more expensive varieties are made of felt or velvet, some with gold braid around the brims, embroidered patterns or beadwork. Some believe this style may have come from Guadalajara, Mexico. Vaqueros may have created this fancier version to go along with their tailored riding outfits.
The sombrero was adapted by mariachi musicians as part of their costumes. Their outfits, filled with elaborate embroidery, beading and gold threads, were complemented by equally stunning sombreros. The wide-brimmed hats were also center stage in the jarabe tapatio, the traditional Mexican hat dance. In this treasured folk tale, a poor peasant is in love with a beautiful maiden and throws his prized sombrero on the ground in offering. She accepts him by dancing on the brim of his hat.
In many ways the media, that very vehicle that made the sombrero a familiar Mexican symbol, has had a hand in portraying the hat as a symbol of laziness. Comic strips, cartoons and live action films sometimes show Mexican people as sitting about with sombreros pulled down over their heads, having a siesta. Sombreros were, and still are, also perceived as profitable tourist souvenirs, often produced in larger than normal sizes and sporting company logos or city names. In reality, sombreros are a creative, environmentally friendly answer to the problem of keeping cool while living in the hot Mexican climate.
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