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French West Indies
Front Porch Milliners


To find one, directions were to walk up the street lined with simple cottages and look for a man on his porch making them. The older French gentleman barely looked up from his work as we approached. He was too busy carving the tip of the hat frame, with a very sharp knife.
The Salako hat we were looking for is mostly a tourist souvenir nowadays. But it's still handcrafted, and lovingly made, by a few people on the island of Terre de Bas of the Les Saintes Islands, off Guadeloupe.
Salako hats have been worn by fishermen of Terre de Bas for over 150 years. They are still made according to their original design. So rooted in the Guadeloupean history, the Salako has been represented on paper currency.
The origin of the Salako is still a mystery, although its roots may be traced to the Tonkin people of Vietnam, where stylish women wore extravagant ones with their 19th c. clothing. Officials & local workers wore simpler versions. French Indochinese military troops donned the Salako as far back as 1864. Others claim the hat originated in Spanish colonies of the Phillipines. The term 'salacot' was used to signify a colonial helmut.
The origin may never be clear. But what is clear is that the Salako hat still worn by fishermen and other, mostly older citizens, is slowly disappearing on Les Saintes.
Though odd at first site, when you think about the hat's style, its design makes perfect sense. Made of bamboo sticks, bent and sewn together, it's shaped like a parasol with a flat
top. There's a tip that's carved from a composite material. Below is a bamboo crown, that sits down comfortably on the head. The top framework is traditionally covered in a bright madras or simple white cotton. A tie to secure the hat under the chin finishes it off.
The extremely lightweight hat provides just what islanders need: comfortable protection from the hot sun and heat and good ventilation, owing to the open network of the bamboo. The Salako is exotic
and a little bit funny-looking to foreign eyes. But after seeing the people of Les Saintes wearing them on the beach, in their boats or in the local market, you get used to its look. And what a thrill it is to see fashion that's so indigenous to an island! Unfortunately, the Salako tradition is one that remains tenuous at best, since only the older generation still embraces them.
The front porch milliner finished up a hat for us as we watched him thread a needle admirably, even with his old eyes. His wife, the obvious money manager of the two, counted the French francs carefully. We wondered how often the kindly gentleman handed over a Salako to a tourist who walked by. He probably wondered where in the world his Salako was going!


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