What the returning mullet means now
Lil Nas X caused a stir, as he always does, when he arrived on the red carpet at last fall’s MTV Video Music Awards wearing a lavender hybrid outfit – half pantsuit and half off the shoulder dress – by Atelier Versace. The goal, the rapper explained, was to telegraph “a blend of masculine and feminine energy.” Continuing that idea was her hair: a mullet styled in a Jheri curl, a few wavy locks brushing her collarbone. The look drew comparisons to those of Rick James and Little Richard, while also calling to mind a longer and rather colorful history.
There is evidence of the mullet – which is characterized by tightly shorn hair everywhere except the back of the head, where it is left quite long – appearing in ancient Assyria, Egypt and Greece. Greek texts suggest that the style was particularly popular with warriors; undoubtedly, the longer locks kept their necks warm while the bangs allowed them to see clearly and, indeed, there is something like a helmet to the style. In Homer’s “Iliad”, for example, the Abantes, a faction of spearmen, are described as having “long hair down their backs”. Depictions of Greek gods also confirm that the mullet was a style of the time: the Belvedere Apollo, a 2nd-century Roman sculpture, depicts Apollo with his hair tied up high and curls flowing down his neck. And in some indigenous populations, including tribes in the western United States like the Blackfoot and Crow, long hair has long symbolized power and a connection to the divine, and a version of the mullet – the front enriched with materials like grease and the long, sometimes braided back – is considered a traditional style.
That in the 19th century, men of the Nez Perce tribe in the Pacific Northwest who wore their hair long down their backs came under pressure from Christian missionaries to abandon style in favor of something more “civilized” speaks to us of the evils of cultural erasure, but also more broadly of conformity. In much of the Western world, mules have been widely seen as a hindrance, celebrated or feared, to convention. Take David Bowie, who wore chalky white make-up, psychedelic jumpsuits and a water-soaked orange mullet to debut his otherworldly alter ego Ziggy Stardust in 1972. Shortly after this glamorous alien emerged, a more working-class punk subculture for which rebellion was a raison d’etre. And as much as ripped clothes, safety pins, chains and piercings – the “showdown dressing room” thing, as Vivienne Westwood called it – the mullet played a big part in the aesthetics of the movement. For one thing, the ragged styling was deliberately ugly. “It was supposed to be a shock to society,” says hairdresser Guido Palau, who was a mullet-wearing member of the punk scene in 1970s Dorset, England. “You were walking on the road and people were crossing to avoid you,” he said. “It caused such havoc.”
In the 80s and early 90s, slightly softer versions permeated the wider culture via the dreamboat celebrities of the day (Lionel Richie, Andre Agassi, the members of Duran Duran) before crossing over into corny territory. over the heads of Billy Ray Cyrus and Michael Bolton. . But the cut has retained its edge in the queer community. Sexist musicians Joan Jett, Patti Smith and Prince all sported the style, which was copied by many of their fans. “Queer people probably wouldn’t go to a mainstream salon because it’s not a space you felt comfortable in,” says Rachael Gibson, a London-based hair and beauty editor who runs an Instagram account called the hair historian. “But by the nature of being a do-it-yourself thing, it became a powerful statement to be an outsider.” However, a decade later, the hairstyle, then a tragic mark of too hard efforts, has fallen into disuse.
Perhaps the mullet elicited such strong reactions because it refuses to be one thing, standing halfway between long and short, masculine and feminine, tasteful and tacky. But if an inability to categorize is embarrassing to some, this kind of in-between is exactly what some are looking for, especially in a time when genre and taste justifiably and crucially feel so fluid. . No wonder, then, that over the past five years, mullet has enjoyed a relative resurgence. Pop culture stalwarts like Rihanna, who frequently returns to the style, and Miley Cyrus, whose choppy version has become something of a signature, have brought the mullet back and cemented it as cool again. He appeared in a slew of Fall 2022 shows, including Junya Watanabe’s ready-to-wear, in which models paraded in seemingly haphazard-dyed versions, as well as punk leather jackets, and at Stella McCartney, which featured more shaggier takes reminiscent of the 70s flip-flops. Palau is responsible for the mules seen at Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2022 show, some whitewashed and spiked with overt Bowie references. The hairdresser recalls that the homonymous founder of the brand particularly liked the style. “He liked the sense of the game,” Palau says, “the short and the long together.”
Gaming, yes, but what about power? Gen Z has made it clear that there is a lot to contend with. “Whether [it’s] climate change consciousness they were born into, then spending two years online and now an ongoing war, they recognize the world is extreme,” says Moya Luckett, media historian and professor of celebrity culture at NYU, who a has noticed more frequent and more radical experimentation in the looks of his students in recent years. “They are interested in pushing buttons and boundaries.” At the same time, this generation recognizes that we are in a postmodern era in which no gaze is entirely in or out, or even anything that is likely to get a big reaction. It would be hard to find someone crossing the street to avoid a mule in 2022. In Palau’s eyes, “it’s quite difficult to shock people with your hair now because there are so many shocking things in the world.” Children also know that the political potential of aesthetics does not go very far. But the mule is a beginning, a gesture, a promise. And at the bare minimum, the style, often summed up as “business in the front, party in the back”, is pretty perfect for Zoom meetings.