In this article, Emmie Cosgrove explores the history of mullets and how the hairstyle is now being embraced again, despite ongoing criticism. Illustrations by Ben Springham
This year has seen its fair share of past trends making their way back into mainstream fashion. VSCO girls bought back the 80s scrunchies (though as a wrist accessory, rather than a hair piece), and the vibrant bohemian patterns of the 70s have made a scene on the fashion week runways. 2020 has been a truly nostalgic year for style, and we all know that fashion loves to revive trends from the past.
Even so, it may come as a surprise to some that one of the current hair trends is the mullet. Yes, you heard it right, the mullet. It could be possible to blame this year’s RuPaul Drag Race contestant, Crystal Meythd, for the mullet mania. She has proven to all Drag Race fans that you can look absolutely stunning and still rock a mullet. However, the mullet has been working its way back into mainstream fashion since late 2019 and though this hairstyle has received a large amount of criticism, 2020 may be the year you find yourself sporting this ‘do.
It’s easy to think that the mullet made its debut appearance in the 70s and 80s, but the hairstyle that’s all business in the front and party at the back has been around for an exceptionally long time. Hair historians reckon that it was the Neanderthals who were the first to have mullets.
Having a hairstyle that dates this far back means that it probably wasn’t about the style, but about the practicality. Mullets were practical for Neanderthals as they help keep hair out of the eyes but still protect necks from wind and rain. This is a definite bonus of the contrasting lengths of a mullet. The fact that we think Neanderthals approved of the practical mullet cut could also mean that it may actually be one of the oldest haircuts of all time, albeit not amongst Homo Sapiens.
As well as having antique pedigree, this hairstyle has been worn by multiple cultures. Native Americans donned mullets, not only for the practical benefits of the haircut, but also as a sign of spiritual strength. Tribespeople held the belief that a person’s hair encapsulated their spirit.The longer a person’s hair, the stronger their spirit and spirituality was. However, not wanting to have hair get in their face or eyes meant that mullets were the ideal cut to represent spirituality whilst being practical.
Over time the mullet made its way into Western culture. The mullet became a popular style for colonial wigs, with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin having the most notoriously mullet-like hairpieces. However, it didn’t take long for colonial wigs to decrease in popularity as more gendered haircuts became the new thing.
Society developed a more conservative look when it came to hair and clothes, and this caused the mullet to fizzle out into the background. It became appropriate for men to have short hair: it was more practical, kept hair out of the way and required far less maintenance. Though long hair had always been a symbol of femininity, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that long hair was seen as too feminine for men. It was seen as unnatural to dress loudly and boldly and experiment with your own personal style. Those who dressed against society’s strict and gendered boundaries were often frowned upon.
Thankfully, when the 60s rolled around, the narrow-minded views people held towards fashion, style, and appearances began to change. People wanted to be free from mainstream society and rebel against it. Hair and clothing choices were a perfect way to show the world you didn’t care for its rules and restrictions. You’re a free-minded individual and you can make your own choices about how you look.
Throughout the 60s, men began to grow their hair out and challenge the status quo, and by the 1970s hair and fashion trends were becoming even more avant-garde. As part of his Ziggy Stardust persona, David Bowie rocked a bright orange mullet. By having elements of both long and short hair all in one, David Bowie stunned audiences with his androgynous hair and fashion choices.
This was a major turning point for the mullet. Forget wigs and colonialism, the mullet now had a whole new meaning. Thanks to David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, the mullet symbolised pushing past gender boundaries and was a style for the stars. Inspired by Bowie’s iconic look, musicians ranging from the Duran Duran members to AC/DC’s guitarist, Angus Young, began to rock mullets. It was a bold rock ‘n’ roll look.
We’ve all had those times where we’ve taken pictures of our favourite celebrities into a hair salon, and have asked for the exact chop, and, with so many rock stars and actors sporting the mullet, it didn’t take long for the mullet to become a mainstream haircut. By the 80s, the mullet was everywhere.
Queer culture of the 80s also grew a taste for the mullet. With the hairstyle’s androgynous and ungendered look, the 80s mullet became a staple lesbian haircut for women who were comfortable and confident in openly expressing their sexuality through appearance.
The mixed length nature nature of the haircut also allowed those who identified as lesbian to have a haircut that contained elements of both masculinity and femininity. The mullet went against traditional beauty standards set for women by the patriarchy, and queer and feminist culture has always fought against this. The mullet was a powerhouse haircut for queer women.
However, though a few women did rock the mullet, it was still seen as a far more masculine haircut. In the mid-80s the mullet was heavily endorsed by male athletes, which added an even stronger hyper-masculine flavour to the hairstyle. Towards the end of the 80s, the mullet died out once again and it didn’t take long for this hairstyle to become associated with trailer parks and hillbillies.
Middle partings and spiky frosted tips were all the rage in the 90s for male hair trends. With the rise of the 90s sitcom Friends, the show’s character Rachel Green’s haircut, known as ‘The Rachel’, was the biggest hair trend for women in the 90s. These mainstream hair trends were seen as a lot more sleek and stylish, and on the other spectrum those who wanted a more grunge look would just let their hair down and leave it long.
With the mullet no longer being an ontrend look, and its association with cringey all-American country culture, by 1994 the mullet was coined as a joke haircut. The Beastie Boys song Mullet Head actually gave the haircut its name whilst mocking the culture the mullet represented. The term “mullet head” also started to be used as an insult. It referred to people who had no common sense, as who in their right mind would ever have a mullet? Following the Beastie Boys song and the insulting nature of the slang term, the mullet very quickly became a haircut of worldwide ridicule. It didn’t matter where you were from, the mullet just wasn’t a look to be seen with.
Many may have assumed that the 90s would be the final end for this haircut, with all the jokes about how tacky it was.
However, somehow the mullet persisted through all this. This hairstyle slowly crept its way back into fashion, and in 2010 Iran even banned the haircut for being a symbol of western culture. In the later 2000s multiple celebrities have been seen sporting mullets. Stars ranging from Zendaya to Rhianna and Barbie Ferreira have all pulled off the mullet, showing the world this style can look cool. Shows such as Stranger Things have also shown wide audiences that men too can look attractive, rather than tacky, with a mullet, thanks to the show’s character Billy Hargrove.
With major celebrities pulling off the look and TV shows bringing back the hype for 80s fashion, the mullet has begun to pick up again. People are now seeing the fun of having a mullet and are getting more experimental with the look and pushing the mullet past its ‘Billy Ray Cyrus’ boundaries. Bright coloured mullets and mullets with a more subtle and shaggy look are in for 2020, and we can expect to see way more people asking for this trim at the hairdressers.
With this shaggier look and fun textured layers, and a less dramatic contrast between the front and back of the hair, the modern mullet gives this look a whole new fashion-forward vibe. It’s still a statement, but the new mullet style is a definite move away from the trailer park tackiness that mullets have long been associated with.
You can read more of Emmie’s work over on Twitter at @Ems_Pen_