Rocking her sombrero, in Mexico City, is American actress, Katy Perry. She was in the country, on February 7th, as part of the promotion for the perfume range, 'Purr'. After entertaining the crowds, Ms Perry sat down to meet, greet and sign some autographs. It was then that a fan handed her the hat; and it was this photograph that ended up in all the world's media. Why? Because it placed her firmly in her location. Katy Perry is in Mexico! And she has the sombrero to prove it!
Nothing says Mexico like the sombrero. On a global scale, it's probably more recognizable than our flag, as a national icon. But why this particular hat and why did it become so famous?
'Sombrero' by Ngy Thanh
The name sombrero comes from the Spanish sombra, meaning 'shade', and therein lies the clue to its original function. Out in the fields, with the Mexican sun pounding down, the workers needed some protection. No-one is going to walk around with a parasol nor stop to erect marquees, so they had to get shelter from somewhere. Enter the wide-brimmed hat - portable, practical shade from the elements.
These workers started early in the morning, while the dawn was barely a glimmer on the horizon. They worked throughout the climbing heat, until noon made it unbearable. The sombreros allowed them to stay out in the field, hunkered down under their hats, for a siesta and a break. Then, as the afternoon waned, they were in situ for the second half of the day's labour, continuing late into the evening.
To the north-east, there were newcomers. The American pioneers, treading a trail into the Wild West, started to encounter these Mexican workers. Originating, on the whole, from colder climes, the Americans had seen neither a sombrero nor a siesta before. Thus two stereotypes were born: the 'lazy' Mexican and the 'big hat wearing' Mexican. Of course, as soon as they'd settled in and experienced a few summers in the heat themselves, the practicality of the situation was learned. The sombrero inspired the Stetson, the cowboy hat extraordinaire.
It may seem slightly incredible that those monstrously huge, brightly colored sombreros, touted in so many tourist shops, could have inspired the more subdued cowboy hats. However, a sombrero simply means 'wide-brimmed hat'. What the Americans saw on the heads of Mexican farm labourers and ranchers weren't the massive, elaborate hats, seen so often now on the heads of the Mariachis.
For a start, it would have been highly difficult to even attempt heavy manual work, while keeping one of those perched on your head. The workers' sombreros were smaller and woven from straw. The wealthier people, including landowners and overseers, lined their hats with felt. These sombreros looked much more like a Stetson.
Hats worn by Mexican ranchers and farm workers
Most people don't see the hats in the field. They see them instead in the world of entertainment: on the heads of Mariachis; at the rodeos; in the parades. These are the places where style and spectacle always win out over practicality. Thus the sombreros get bigger and wilder, more embroidered and in ever more startling colors. They were donned in homage to the hats of their audiences, in solidarity, but with a sprinkle of showbusiness glitz and glamour.
Of course, these were the shows, the style and music that got exported around the world. These were the hats that made Mexico famous or, in some case, infamous. Celebrity visitors still habitually slip on a sombrero to signal their identification with the Mexican people.
Pope John Paul II, with a Mariachi sombrero, in Mexico
The average Mexican does not wear a huge sombrero. Those in the countryside, working out on the land, may still wear the smaller, more practical versions, but in the cities our crowns are bare. Nevertheless, it's a recognized gesture that a sombrero on a head means a nod to Mexico.
There are only two reasons that an urban Mexican will put on a sombrero. One is for fun and the other for national identity. Often the two go hand in hand. They are the fiestas, the parades and the great sporting events. Any time that anyone needs a visual prop to say, '¡Viva México!', then out comes the hat and voila! Instant Mexicano!
Fan supporting Mexico, in the 2010 World Cup
Fun is precisely the reason that so many tourists buy one too. Shops and mercados, all over Mexico, display their brightly colored, vastly over-sized sombreros, and visitors to our country snap them up en masse. This is great! It provides photo-opportunities at every turn and creates an array of color across our beaches. Moreover, those beaches need shade and so the story of the sombrero turns full circle, right back to the beginning. You see, there's nothing like a sombrero to keep the Mexican sun from your face.