When legendary Western hatter John B. Stetson invented the first commercially manufactured cowboy hat in 1865, he probably didn’t expect it would become a major fashion accessory more than a century and a half later. And yet around the world today, cowboy hats are worn by more people than ever before, and much of the credit for their newfound popularity goes to the costume designers of “Yellowstone” and “1923,” and to the shows’ creator, Taylor Sheridan.
Award-winning costume designer Janie Bryant created the costumes for the “Yellowstone” prequels “1923” and “1883,” and she believes the timeless appeal of cowboy hats is due, in large part, to their symbolic associations. “I think it really is about the American spirit,” she says. “There’s a wildness, a pioneering spirit, and a sense of freedom that we identify with the cowboy hat. It’s iconically American, and I think people relate with it globally.”
Bryant’s initial foray into designing Western costumes came in 2004 when she created the costumes for the acclaimed HBO series “Deadwood.” Her work on that show earned her an Emmy. “I try to be as authentic to the period as possible, and to illuminate the character with the design of each hat,” she says. “On ‘1923,’ I researched all the different types of hats that were worn in the twenties, and a little bit earlier as well. The cowboy hats in that era were really big, and straw hats were not used at the time. It was all felted hats.”
Working closely with a local Montana hat maker named Bear, Bryant and her “1923” costume department produced a wide variety of cowboy hats for the series. “I feel blessed that we found Bear,” she says. “We shot in a small town, and Bear would bring his camper to the studio and just make hats for us all day long, with different colors, different hat blocks, and different felts. He made hundreds of hats for us.”
“1923” stars Harrison Ford as powerful Montana rancher Jacob Dutton, the great-granduncle of “Yellowstone’s” John Dutton. In a series filled with impeccably designed cowboy hats, Ford’s large high-crowned gray hat is the one that captured the most attention. It features a wide brim rolled on both sides and a steep front dip, not unlike Robert Duvall’s famous hat from the 1989 miniseries “Lonesome Dove.”
“Harrison and I talked a lot about the different creases and hat blocks of the period, and the one I liked the most was the Montana peak,” Bryant says. “It’s a slope style that’s higher in the back and shorter in the front, and the slope goes down the center. I just thought, on an instinctual level, that Montana slope was the right look for Jacob. It’s a super strong and masculine hat block, and that describes Harrison’s character perfectly.”
As for the hat’s icy color, Bryant chose it as a way to reflect Jacob’s underlying personality. “I loved using silver and gray, because there’s a coolness and a traditional sensibility to his character,” she says. “He’s hardened in a way by just working the land.”
Authenticity is also essential when it comes to the cowboy hats on “Yellowstone,” and Sheridan is the reason for that, according to the show’s costume designer, Johnetta Boone. “Taylor is our authenticator,” Boone says. “He lives and breathes the cowboy world, and that’s what makes the show so good.”
To give the cowboy hats on “Yellowstone” a lived-in feel, Boone uses several different methods to distress them. “There’s actually something called movie dirt, which comes prepackaged, but the best thing you can do is use the natural elements from wherever you are,” she says. “Our ager-dyer gets dirt from outside, and we rub it in with oil, because the oil from your head is what seeps through your hat from sweating. We might also take a torch to it, to burn off the clean hairs and break them down so you can really get the dirt into the fibers.”
Boone says each cowboy hat worn by a major character on “Yellowstone” reveals something about who they are on the inside. Often, it’s the material or the color that holds the key to understanding the message being delivered. Other times, it’s the style or the size of the hat that speaks the loudest.
“Rip’s hat, for example, tells us a couple of things about him,” Boone says. “First of all, it’s completely morphed to the shape of his face because of the way he’s curled it over time, which tells us that he’s been wearing it nonstop every day on the ranch since he was a teenager. When his hat started off, it was probably clean and black, and the shape was very rigid. But now it’s curled in a way that says he’s been at this job for a long time.”
In a show filled with dirty cowboy hats, none is filthier or more heavily stained than the hat worn by Luke Grimes, who plays Kayce Dutton. In fact, it’s downright gross on close inspection, and that’s on purpose, according to Boone. “Kayce’s hat tells us that he’s not just the ranch owner’s son, he also works hard and means business,” she says. “He absolutely gets in there and gets his hands dirty.”
When Kayce became the Montana Livestock Commissioner in Season 3, Boone gave him a clean cowboy hat to wear on his first day on the job. Then she got a call from Sheridan. “He said, ‘never change his hat,’ and I said, ‘well, Luke and I thought that since he’s putting on a sport coat and a dress shirt for work, he would have a clean hat for a special occasion.’ And Taylor said, ‘he might have a clean hat for a special occasion, but that’s not the occasion.’ So we shifted him back to his dirty hat, and Kayce probably won’t get that opportunity again.”
The most popular character on “Yellowstone” is undoubtedly Beth Dutton, the family firebrand portrayed by Kelly Reilly. Although she’s the most vicious member of the Duttons, her cowboy hat illustrates her softer side. It was crafted specially for Reilly by a hat maker in Darby, Mont., and Boone says it hints at the compassion and vulnerability lurking beneath Beth’s tough exterior. “When you see her wearing it, you feel a different way than you do when she’s a hard-nosed executive out there doing business. We hadn’t seen Beth on a horse before, so we wanted viewers to fall in love with seeing her on horseback with that hat.”
While most actors on “Yellowstone” have a single cowboy hat that defines their character, Kevin Costner sports multiple hats on the show depending on what John Dutton is doing in a particular scene. In Season 5, the formal black cowboy hat he wears while being sworn in as governor of Montana looks truly massive on screen, but Boone reveals that its colossal size is merely an optical illusion.
“Kevin’s governor hat might look bigger, but it’s actually the exact same hat as all of his others,” she says. “They’re all the same size and shape, but here’s the difference. When he’s dressed in a cowboy outfit, the hat doesn’t look as broad or threatening as it does when he’s in his suit. It creates a different profile entirely.”
As for the rest of the “Yellowstone” cast, many of them are authentic cowboys when they’re not acting, so they arrive on set with their own hats in hand. Forrie J. Smith who plays Lloyd, for instance, is a genuine cowboy, and he came to the show with his own hat. Likewise, Jake Ream and Ethan Lee are professional cowboys who wear their own hats on the series. “But Ian Bohen who plays Ryan is an actor, not a cowboy, so he deferred to our expertise,” Boone says. “So did Denim Richards who plays Colby, and Wes Bentley who plays Jamie Dutton. They’re not cowboys, so they trust us to get their hats right.”
Color is often used to differentiate the hats from each other, and Boone draws from an array of natural shades to create the show’s signature look. “Taylor set the color tone early on, and the tone is sunset,” she says. “We use sunset hues because they’re warmer, and they create a relationship between the viewer and the cowboys, because it’s connected to the Earth.”
Unlike most commercially available cowboy hats on the market, the hats on “Yellowstone” are made of 100% beaver fur. “You can immediately tell the difference between a true cowboy and what Taylor calls a tourist by the hat they wear,” Boone says. “A tourist would wear a felt cowboy hat, but real cowboys wear beaver fur hats because they’re waterproof, and they hold their shape regardless of the weather conditions.”
Reflecting on the current surge in popularity of cowboy hats across all walks of life, Boone believes that the fascinating origin of the cowboy hat holds a key to its skyrocketing appeal.
“When you look back at the history of cowboy hats, and how the shape changed from the early vaqueros to the Boss of the Plains hat created by Stetson, it makes total sense,” she says. “Boss of the Plains means you run things, and I think that’s why everyone is so attracted to that shape. You subconsciously feel like a boss when you’re wearing one. I see a difference in people’s posture when they put their cowboy hat on. You feel like you’re on top of the world!”
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