A history of the mullet

Jenessa Williams 30 June 2021

In the wake of its fashion comeback, Jenessa Williams evaluates the long history of the subversive mullet

Though many people’s memories of the mullet are particularly evocative of the 1980s, its history as a subversive hairstyle goes back much further than that. 

Ancient History

Literary records fate back to the Ancient Greek poet Homer, who described the Abantes, a group of warring spearmen, as wearing “their forelocks cropped, hair grown long at the backs”. Historians suspect that the mullet may well have been a look of necessity; keeping necks warm and dry but hair out of eyes during battle, it was a best-of-both-worlds style that allowed helmets to fit snugly at war. Indeed, if you look closely at many of the Greek statues to be found in western museums, you might see artefacts dating back to the 6th Century BC, all sporting a graduation of lengthy curls.

Mullets were also the style of choice for youthful, wealthy ancient Romans who liked to turn out in their hoards to watch the chariot races. Known as the ‘hun cut’, this look carries clear parallels with the sporting fans of the 1980s, a proud emblem of the bawdy, vocal culture of enthusiastic sportsmanship.

The 1800s

In the US, Native American tribes frequently exhibited a combination of the mullet and the Mohawk, braided at either side. The style maintained despite clear pressures from the Christian missionary for these communities to fall in line with the shorter crops of the time, an act of political protest in a time where tensions between communities were high.

If the mullet-hawk was an act of rebellion against the forced relocation of Native American homeland, it contrasts interestingly with the events of the late 18th century, where president Benjamin Franklin adopted a ‘skullet’ (bald on top and long at the side) as a means of assimilating with the French to win their diplomatic support. Rather shabby in its appearance, the hairstyle was chosen to indicate a certain unassuming nature, and it seemingly worked; over the course of the following years, Franklin would secure more than $4600 million equivalent, vital for the functioning of the US government budget.

"In the US, Native American tribes frequently exhibited a combination of the mullet and the Mohawk, braided at either side."

The 1900s

 David Bowie in 1974

David Bowie performing at Top of the Pops in 1974 Credit: Creative Commons

The idea of the mullet as a somewhat undesirable hairstyle would continue into the 1900s.  In 1917, the term ‘mullet-head’ was used by American sociologists to indicate somebody or lesser intelligence or critical interest, and much before that, in 1855’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, Tom Sawyer also refers to his Aunt and Uncle as ‘mullet-headed’, adhering to understandings of the term as an emblem of dull-witted lower-class.

Conservatism would win out for much of the early 1900s, with men opting for short practical styles and women going to great lengths (no pun intended) to maintain an appearance of smooth, sleep professionalism. As the 60s and 70s ushered in an air of anti-authoritarianism, some retrospective debate does exist as to whether David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ look or The Beatles collar-skimming locks could constitute mullets, working as they did to alter perceptions of masculinity and femininity. 

Wherever you stood on the matter, Clarity would come in the 1980s. The decade of all decadence, the mullet adhered to the alpha-masculinity that we saw on screen; Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, MTV, WWF Wrestling, all jostling for space in the hearts and minds of impressionable teens. At once flamboyantly teased and ruggedly unkempt, the mullet was broadly adopted by stars throughout all genres of music, from the advent of ‘hair metal’ to the guitar-twanging backwaters of folk and Americana.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the word became fully immortalised in pop-cultural form. On the track "Mullet Head" from their 1994 album, "Ill Communication," The Beastie Boys rap "You wanna know what's a mullet?/Well I got a little story to tell/About a hairstyle, that's a way of life/Have you ever seen a mullet wife?" The group wouldn’t explain the term any further, but somehow they had exemplified it; a working-class aesthetic that liked to party and ride open-top cars, embracing a simple-minded, all-American way of life.  Seen on everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Brad Pitt, Joan Jett to Jane Fonda, there was no denying that the mullet could be accessible to anybody who chose to don it.

"The decade of all decadence, the mullet adhered to the alpha-masculinity that we saw on screen"

The 2000s and 2010s

 Rihanna sporting a mullet

Rihanna sporting a mullet, credit: Samir Hussein/Wire Image/Getty Images

As with all trends, the mullet’s 90s peak gave way to a valley of indifference, or at worst, serious dissent. Seen as dated and ‘hillbilly’, the mullet became a hairstyle of parody, a quick visual trick to lampoon the American working class. Unless your name was Billy Ray Cyrus, your mullet was probably reserved for small independent skateboarding communities or wilfully counter-cultural art, donned with heavy irony.

Where mullets did appear in the mainstream, it was normally tethered to homages of 80s popular culture. Billy Hargrove, portrayed by Dacre Montgomery-Harvey in Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ is perhaps the strongest visual nod in soem televisual time, but there was also the odd brave celebrityRihanna, Kristen Stewart and Scarlett Johanssonwho picked up the look, seemingly wishing to challenge standards of conventional femininity.

Present Day

 

Miley Cyrus, credit: Getty Images

As a new decade opened and the world was introduced to the Tiger King, there is perhaps no modern embodiment of the mullet quite like Joe Exotic. His self-confessed pride and joy, Exotic’s crowning glory has heralded a whole new era of nostalgic pseudo-trashy appreciation that has brought the mullet right back into fashion. iD Magazine described 2020 as the year of the mullet, connected in part to the closure of hairdressing salons but also peoples desires to have a ‘business in the front, party in the back’ aesthetic that could serve both zoom meetings and personal downtime.

As a result, the mullet is visible in celebrity culture once more, particularly within the LGBTQIA+ community as a means of exploring androgyny and self-expression. From Miley Cyrus to Bimini Bon Boulash, Damon Albarn to Billie Eilish, iterations of the mullet have once again been the go-to image to take to your hairdresser. Trend forecasters predict that even more popular still will be the ‘wolf cut’a meeting point between an 80s mullet and a 70s shag that frames the face in soft wavy layers, tapering volume from top to bottom.

"Trend forecasters predict that even more popular still will be the ‘wolf cut’–a meeting point between an 80s mullet and a 70s shag that frames the face in soft wavy layers, tapering volume from top to bottom"

Despite their returning popularity, mullets still remain as imagery of rebellion. In May 2021, North Korea’s leader banned both skinny jeans and mullets from usage, seemingly in fear that they might be a gateway to ‘decadent’ western influences, while an Australian school also hit headlines for decrying the style as ‘untidy’ and ‘non-conventional’. The mullet’s future remains to be seen, but its history is as long as the wild hair that trails to the back of the neck—just as those rowdy Ancient Romans would have wanted it.

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