Artwork – Business in the Front, Party in the Back, Elish Kathleen, 2020
Short on the top. Long at the back. The mullet is a bold, even unmissable, haircut which was hugely popular from the 1970s through to the 1990s. It fell from grace though, and soon became a symbol of bad taste. However, over the past few years, the mullet has been steadily making a comeback. Although, it was really the past year that the mullet grasped a dominant position within the zeitgeist. Much like shoulder pads, flares, and even Y2K fashion, I had thought of mullets as a reminder of styles from the past that were distinctively of their time, styles that would probably never resurface. But, I was wrong, they all have, and here I sit in 2021, with a mullet.
Fashion, we know, is cyclical, and so it should come as no surprise that even the most controversial and disparaged styles have come back around in more modern, and ‘stylish’ iterations. The mullet is no different: an iconic hairstyle so synonymous with the 80s that it later became infamous for its ugliness, and, like most 80s fashion, for its sheer un-stylishness. Despite these previous associations, we’ve seen the mullet slowly creep back into the mainstream. From 2013, the mullet was spotted on catwalks and celebrities alike, though these choices were still mostly ridiculed within the tabloids. Then, in 2019, the mullet was again seen on runways for fashion brands such as Gucci and Yves Saint Lauren and in 2020, celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, Christine and the Queens and Troye Sivan were seen sporting the look. The haircut, known also by its slogan ‘business in the front, party in the back’, was, in the fashion world, officially chic again. And though the mainstream revival of the mullet was firmly a result of 2020, it seems that it won’t be going anywhere in 2021, with Rihanna adopting the style (again) at the end of last year. The mullet is here to stay. But what are the roots of this controversial cut?
History of the Mullet
The mullet has been around longer than just the 20th Century. In the Ancient Greek epic, Iliad, Homer references the Abantes warriors with “their forelocks cropped, hair grown long at the backs”. This style continued to be mentioned in other sources through to the modern period. For example, in the late-1700s, Benjamin Franklin and French Revolutionaries alike were fond of a similar look, whilst in the 19th Century, members of the Nez Perce Native American people valued a hairstyle resembling what we now call a mullet. However, it was not until the 1970s that the look was embraced within Western popular culture. When I asked my mom, who is a hairdresser, to first cut me in a mullet, she told me that it was one of the first hairstyles that she learned how to cut as a teenager in the early 70s – though of course it wasn’t called a mullet then. My mom explained that when she worked in Dublin at this time, it was called a ‘Gypsy cut’ or ‘the chop’, and it was a haircut that both men and women asked for. In the podcast Decoder Ring’s episode, ‘Mystery of the Mullet’, host Willa Paskin delves into the history of the word ‘mullet’ and explains that it actually only came into the cultural lexicon in 1994 – around the time of the Beastie Boys’ song ‘Mullet Head’ – despite the style being in our cultural memory for a lot longer. The haircut, as mentioned, firmly became fashionable in the 1970s with David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Chrissy Hynde, Joan Jett and an array of other musicians, popularising the style that would later be called the mullet. It then became more popular in the 80s and more extreme, often being paired with a perm. Even though some of the most iconic mullets – such as Billy-Ray Cyrus’ – were actually 1990s mullets, we associate the trend with the excess of the 1980s.
Paskin explains that this is a distortion; the aesthetics we assign to decades usually start mid-decade and continue into the next one, but we tend to forget this in favour of using shorthand terms for decades when referencing their styles, and, therefore, this can change our perception of the past. So, while the mullet was still widely popular during the early 1990s, by the late 90s, the mullet’s status began to decline. This was partly due to its association with country music. Within popular culture, the haircut became a punchline for a particularly classist joke; it became a derogatory cipher which belonged to ‘hillbillies’ and ‘white trash’. It is ironic then, considering the classist associations of the haircut during the 1990s and 2000s, to see that mullets can now be spotted on young men across the campuses of the UK’s most privileged universities and private schools. What perhaps makes it a seemingly ‘rebellious’ hairstyle for young, upper-class men, is its supposed ‘trashy’ status – appropriating the notions of what dominant culture perceives as bad taste. In so doing, they create a false image far removed from their own privileged reality.
However, this perhaps ironic use of the style within one social set only confirms that the mullet has become a transgressive hairstyle for many people, within a variety of social groups, for different reasons – its anti-fashion nature being only one of them. The mullet is cool simply because it is not. The fact that it is a haircut which people take the piss out of means that if you choose to wear one, you are essentially sticking two fingers up to those who think they can gatekeep what’s deemed cool, or stylish, and what’s not. It is telling within its transgressive nature, that the mullet has never really gone out of style within alternative and queer subcultures. Importantly, this is perhaps because the haircut has often been a symbol of androgyny. And while it has been associated with rock and roll, rebellion, and sometimes masculinity, it is a style that men, women and non-binary people have worn and continue to wear. It is both male and female, neither and both: it is, definitively, genderless. Within queer communities, for example, the mullet has long been popular as a signifier for identity. Similarly, a woman with a mullet, subverts gendered ideas of what constitutes as conventionally ‘feminine’ hair. While the haircut is also popular with straight men, the rise in women, queer, and non-binary people embracing the look reflects the sense of rebellion that the mullet offers. Through drawing on its counter-culture history, it becomes a radical signifier for identity, protest and subversion, all of which offers an understanding of why the style has had a widespread revival within Gen-Z.
Another reason for the mullet’s current resurgence is due to its adaptability. You needn’t go all out and shave the sides, there are plenty of examples of softer mullets which straddle the line between full mullet and shag cut. There is variety within the style – it can be short or long, tight and sharp, or soft and full – making it more accessible. Though the layers may seem extreme, the mullet offers you choice and options when it comes to styling. Even the softer styles still emulate the edginess of the haircut. It can also be an easy and low-maintenance hairstyle which suits different hair types, making it an obvious option during the pandemic when you want to roll out of bed at 10 to 9 Monday morning for your work Zoom meeting.
Thinking about it #fyp♬ original sound – Lukas Battle
Of course, we cannot talk about the great mullet renaissance of 2020 without discussing the vehicle which facilitated its rapid rise in popularity: TikTok. The Coronavirus pandemic brought about the dangerous combination of boredom and restless energy. People turned to the internet to fill their days, to find something, anything, to do. TikTok’s popularity surged in 2020 because of this. The app in which you can create a short one-minute video, set to music, was enjoyed immensely in the first lockdown for teaching us a whole host of viral dances. It also became a platform where people began to document dramatic lockdown haircuts done by themselves, or by people in their household, and, of course, the mullet was one of them. It was like a snowball effect: one viral video, then caused another, and another, and suddenly we were all under the spell of the mullet, begging our moms to cut us one in lieu of being able to go to the hairdressers – or was that just me? And it didn’t matter whether it was ironic or not; if it was because you were bored; or if it was because you wanted to look like Miley Cyrus, lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to experiment with your hair (and your looks more broadly) and not have to go through the awkward phase of growing it out whilst being seen in public spaces if it didn’t suit you. The various stages of lockdown over the past year have given us the freedom to explore styles which we never would have the guts to in ordinary life, and find a community on the internet who are doing the same. Similarly, the DIY effect of the mullet, chopped in in your kitchen at 2am during lockdown, adds to the allure; it’s slightly messy and imperfect, and it only strengthens the haircut’s association of being a style for the confident, a style for those who don’t care what other people think about their ‘ugly’ haircut.
Although the mullet is a look people didn’t just suddenly stop sporting in the 80s, 2020 is definitely the year where it became ‘mainstream’, so to speak, rather than exclusively a haircut worn within different subcultures. At the time of writing, the mullet hashtag on TikTok has over 1.4 billion views attesting to its popularity. The prominence of Instagram and TikTok has meant that different subcultures are now accessible to those who may not have come across them traditionally and when thinking about this culmination, the rise in the mullet’s fashionable status seems glaringly obvious. Lots of fashions or trends popular within alternative, queer, or working-class communities have tended to spill over into the mainstream throughout history and the mullet is no different, except this time, the internet (particularly TikTok) has exaggerated and accelerated the process. The mullet alludes to a punk ethos, and whilst some people may enjoy the sheer aesthetic value of the cut, others are adopting it to reach out and find a sense of community at a time when such a notion is needed.