The Symbolism Behind Dark vs Light Cowboy Hats in Paramount’s Yellowstone, Western Dramas

by Jon D. B.
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Each Yellowstone character’s reasoning behind dark vs light, or white vs black, cowboys hats is far more nuanced than the Hollywood westerns of old.

You’ll never see Rip Wheeler wear a white cowboy hat on Yellowstone. But it’s not because he’s the show’s villain, is it? Yet this is what the long-standing White Hat vs Black Hat mantra of Hollywood would have us believe. So what else is going on underneath that worn, brown-to-black wide brim of his?

To understand why each Yellowstone character wears the cowboy hats they do, it’s pertinent to understand one of Hollywood’s oldest traditions first.

Yellowstone’s Western Heritage: White Hats vs Black Hats

A tremendous amount of effort, thought, and craftsmanship went into each hat worn on Yellowstone. So much so, in fact, that Greely Hat Works master craftsman, Trent Johnson would directly source this timeless Hollywood tradition for every single character. But where does the tradition of the White Hats vs Black Hats come from? And how does it translate into Yellowstone‘s Dark vs Light?

“In American Western films between the 1920’s and 40’s, white hats and black hats were used to symbolize good versus evil,” Greely Hat Works (crafter of all Yellowstone cowboy hats) cites of the tradition.

Using this on-the-nose distinction, audiences of America’s original Westerns could immediately distinguish between heroes and villains within black & white features. A big, bright white wide-brim hat stood out powerfully in greyscale. A black hat could, too; making each hat highly distinguishable even if the character was viewed from behind.

Of course, this is far from a new cultural concept. Light and dark colors – specifically white and black – have been used to signify the battle between good an evil for millennia. Archaeologists see evidence of this in artifacts of Greco-Roman plays, and in the art of nearly every other culture on Earth.

‘Don’t shoot at the black hat…’

The tradition carries over into modern cinema, too. One famous example from a Modern Western comes in 2007’s masterful remake of 1957’s 3:10 to Yuma. Within, a henchman hiring local thugs tells them “don’t shoot at the black hat.”

HBO’s Westworld also holds firm to this Hollywood tradition, with the show’s protagonist choosing to wear a white cowboy hat. Antagonists are often spotted in black cowboys hats in turn – such as Logan (Ben Barnes), who audiences watch shoot up an entire saloon.

But ask any Yellowstone fan, and they’ll tell you that today’s most popular Western doesn’t hold fast and true to this old rule. At all. In fact, it does the opposite in many cases – and for a fascinating reason.

‘Yellowstone’ Flips This Hollywood Archetype on its Head

In short, old Hollywood would have us believe that white hats represent heroes; the pure of heart and morally righteous. Black hats, however, would represent malicious intent. The unethical. The deceitful. The villains, as they were.

But then Yellowstone gave us Rip Wheeler, John Dutton, and scores of the morally ambiguous… A whole cast of heroes and villains that blur the lines between good and evil on an episodic basis.

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Cole Hauser as Rip Wheeler, Yellowstone Season 4. Photo credit: Paramount Network Press

As Greely Hat Works cites, “Rip Wheeler wears a darker hat alluding to impure and unethical intentions. Rest assured, Rip Wheeler is a hero in this storyline which is what makes his character so compelling.”

Seems rather oxymoronic, doesn’t it? And herein lies Yellowstone‘s distinction:

‘Yellowstone’ uses the Dark vs Light Cowboy Hat tradition to signify a character’s own self-reflection, not how the world (or audiences) perceive them.

As the show’s hatmaker cites, Rip Wheeler is certainly a ‘hero’ to Yellowstone audiences. But the Dutton enforcer does not view himself as a hero at all. In fact, he views himself as the opposite: a troubled, deeply dangerous man who’s willing to do anything his boss needs. No questions asked. Hence the dark hats and attire; a true “Man in Black.”

On the flip side, John Dutton wears nearly all light, ivory hats as the series begins – and only white hats in flashbacks to his younger self. The patriarch does, in many ways, view himself as the hero of his own story for decades. He’s doing everything within his power to preserve his family’s legacy. And he sees anyone and everyone who stands in his way as the villain.

As Yellowstone progresses, however, John is seen sporting more and more dark brown cowboy hats. This happens as John is forced to get his hands even dirtier – and he knows it. His switch to dark hats, then, is a direct reflection of his own turn to the Dark Side, if you will. And by Yellowstone Seasons 3 and 4, John never puts on a white cowboy hat again.

The Age of ‘Gray’ Heroes & Villains

Both John and Rip come from a long line of ‘Gray Heroes’ in Hollywood, an archetype centered around the Anti-Hero. Think black hat wearing Clint Eastwood icon, Dirty Harry. Modern audiences tend to find these complex, morally ambiguous protagonist far more entertaining. And with Yellowstone offering them in spades, it’s no wonder it’s the #1 show on television.

And the same rules apply to the show’s villains, too. Many of Yellowstone‘s prominent ‘big bads’ sport white hats, not black. When we meet Garrett Randall, biological father to Jamie Dutton, in Season 3, we only ever see him wearing a white wide-brim. Randall doesn’t see himself as the villain of his story at this time. Instead, he sees himself as the savior of his bloodline; a wronged man who’s been at the mercy of “the system” his entire life.

Yellowstone Season 2’s ‘big bad’, Malcolm Beck, also sported a white cowboy hat for the same reason: Beck believed himself a righteous man. As for Randall, by the time he’s fully accepted his role as the Dutton family’s would-be grim reaper in Season 4, we only ever see him in – you guessed it – a black hat.

Yellowstone‘s use of hat color becomes even more interesting when considering the wide brims his son, Jamie Dutton, wears. Jamie does, by far, the most flip-flopping from protagonist to antagonist. So when we see him on the ranch, Jamie is only ever in a medium, dusty-colored cowboy hat; signifying his moral ambiguity and self-serving nature. Even his own family will never know where his true loyalties lie.

In short: If Yellowstone has written one thing consistently about Jamie, it’s that this adopted Dutton has no idea who he truly is. And his hat is a direct reflection of this.

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Wes Bentley as Jamie Dutton and Luke Grimes as Kayce Dutton. (Photo Credit: Yellowstone Gallery, Paramount Network Press Center, Viacom)

And then there’s his adopted brother, Kayce Dutton, who sports a dark cowboy hat throughout the series – signifying the character’s own inner turmoil. By his hat alone, we can assume Kayce does not consider all the souls he’s taken as a NAVY S.E.A.L. – and in the name of his father’s legacy – as a good thing. Much of Kayce’s story on Yellowstone centers around his self-doubt and atoning with his sins. Kayce does not, in effect, believe himself to be a good man – something Luke Grimes wears in his expression constantly (see above).

Their sister, Beth Dutton, knows herself fully, however. She never parades as the hero. Quite the opposite, in fact, which is why we only ever see her in dark cowboy hats.

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Kelly Reilly as Beth Dutton. (Photo credit: Paramount Network press)

And the list goes on, with one thing for certain: Yellowstone has done a masterful job of presenting modern heroes and villains in a new light – one that makes it far more difficult to peg one from the other.

All the light and dark cowboy hats of Yellowstone will return for Season 5 in late 2022.

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