Lil Nas X caused a stir, as he is wont to do, when he arrived on the red carpet at MTV’s Video Music Awards last fall wearing a lavender hybrid outfit — half pantsuit and half off-the-shoulder gown — by Atelier Versace. The aim, explained the rapper, was to telegraph “a mix of masculine and feminine energy.” Furthering this idea was his hair: a mullet styled in a Jheri curl, a few wavy locks skimming his collarbone. The look drew comparisons to those of Rick James and Little Richard, while also harking back to a longer and rather colorful history.
There’s evidence of the mullet — which is characterized by hair closely shorn everywhere except at the back of the head, where it is left longish — appearing in ancient Assyria, Egypt and Greece. Greek texts suggest the style was particularly popular with warriors; no doubt the longer strands kept their necks warm while the bangs ensured they could see clearly and, indeed, there’s something helmet-like about the style. In Homer’s “Iliad,” for instance, the Abantes, a faction of spearmen, are described as having “hair long at the back.” Depictions of the Greek gods also confirm that the mullet was a style of the time: the Apollo Belvedere, a second-century Roman sculpture, depicts Apollo with hair tied at the top and ringlets flowing down his neck. And in certain Indigenous populations, including tribes of the Western United States like the Blackfoot and Crow, long hair has long symbolized power and a connection with the divine, and a version of the mullet — the front spiked with materials like grease and the back long and sometimes braided — is considered a traditional style.
That in the 19th century, men of the Nez Perce tribe of the Pacific Northwest who wore their hair long in the back faced pressure from Christian missionaries to abandon the style in favor of something more “civilized” tells us about the evils of cultural erasure, but also about conformity more broadly. In much of the Western world, mullets have largely been seen as a thwarting, whether one celebrated or feared, of convention. Take David Bowie, who wore chalky white makeup, psychedelic jumpsuits and a quaffed orange mullet to debut his otherworldly alter ego Ziggy Stardust in 1972. Not long after this glamorous alien emerged came a more working-class punk subculture for which rebellion was a raison d’être. And as much as torn clothes, safety pins, chains and piercings — the stuff of “confrontation dressing,” as Vivienne Westwood called it — the mullet played a large part in the aesthetics of the movement. For one, the ragged style was purposefully ugly. “It was meant to be a shock to society,” says the hairstylist Guido Palau, who was a mullet-wearing member of the punk scene of 1970s Dorset, England. “You’d walk down the road and people would cross over to avoid you,” he says. “It caused such havoc.”
In the ’80s and early ’90s, slightly softer versions suffused the broader culture via the era’s dreamboat celebrities (Lionel Richie, Andre Agassi, the members of Duran Duran) before crossing over into cheesy territory on the heads of Billy Ray Cyrus and Michael Bolton. But the cut retained its edge in the queer community. The gender-bending musicians Joan Jett, Patti Smith and Prince all sported the style, which was copied by many of their fans. “Queer people probably weren’t going to a mainstream salon, because that’s not a space where you were comfortable,” says Rachael Gibson, the London-based hair and beauty editor who runs an Instagram account called the Hair Historian. “But by nature of being a do-it-yourself thing, it became a powerful statement of being an outsider.” Still, a decade or so later, the hairstyle, by then a tragic mark of trying too hard, fell out of style in a big way.
Perhaps, the mullet elicited such strong reactions because it refuses to be any one thing, sitting at the midpoint between long and short, masculine and feminine and tasteful and tacky. But if an inability to categorize causes discomfort in some, this sort of in-betweenness is just what some are looking for, especially at a time when gender and taste both feel, rightfully and crucially, so fluid. No wonder, then, that over the last five years the mullet has experienced a relative resurgence. Pop culture mainstays like Rihanna, who frequently returns to the style, and Miley Cyrus, whose choppy version has become a sort of signature, have brought the mullet back and cemented it as cool once again. It appeared in a multitude of fall 2022 runway shows, including Junya Watanabe’s ready-to-wear, in which models walked with seemingly haphazardly dyed versions, as well as punk leather jackets, and at Stella McCartney’s, which featured shaggier takes reminiscent of ’70s rockers. Palau is responsible for the mullets seen at Alexander McQueen spring 2022 show, some bleached and spiked in overt references to Bowie. The hairstylist recalls that the brand’s namesake founder was particularly fond of the style. “He loved the sense of play,” says Palau, “the short and long together.”
Play, yes, but what about power? Gen Z has made it especially clear that there’s a lot to fight back against. “Whether [it’s] the consciousness of climate change that they’ve been born into, then spending two years online and now a war going on, they recognize the world as extreme,” says Moya Luckett, a media historian and professor of celebrity culture at N.Y.U., who has noticed more frequent and more radical experimentation in her students’ looks in the past few years. “They’re interested in pushing buttons and boundaries.” At the same time, this generation recognizes that we’re in a postmodern era in which no one look is entirely in or out, or even all that likely to get a big reaction. It would be difficult to find someone who crosses the street to avoid a mullet in 2022. As Palau sees it, “It’s quite hard to shock people with your hair now because there are so many shocking things in the world.” The kids know, too, that aesthetics’ political potential only goes so far. But the mullet is a start, a gesture, a promise. And at a bare minimum, the style, often summed up as “business in the front, party in the back,” is pretty perfect for Zoom meetings.