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Business in the front, party in the back: The journey of the mullet

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mullet 2.jpeg

Simon Skinner and his fiancé are planning an unforgettable summer wedding—and not just because of the cake and the dress. Skinner, a speech pathologist at Free State High School, promises an unlikely uniform for him and his right-hand men.

A parade of mullets will accompany Skinner on his way down the aisle.

“Black tie attire with mullets,” he says. “My future mother-in-law isn’t happy.”

Skinner has rocked a mullet for three years prior to his engagement and wanted to continue the style into his ceremony.

 After years of mullet-ridicule, other mullet-lovers like Skinner are reviving the “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyle to incorporate the mullet back into pop culture. The controversial cut is now frequently featured on fashion runways, influential celebrities, and trends on popular social media platforms. When actress and singer Zendaya debuted a dirty blonde mullet at the 2016 Grammy Awards, the 21st century world scratched its head and asked, “A mullet?”

The answer is yes -- a mullet, and it's not going anywhere.

The Roots

Although the style reached rapid popularity in the ‘80s, the mullet has ancient roots. Alan Henderson, author of Mullet Madness!, says in his book that Neanderthals were rocking the mullet around 430,000 years ago. The mullet is not just a fashion statement; it’s a survival strategy. Henderson says that the mullet helped Neanthradrals stay cool in the summer, warm in the winter. The “party in the back” protected the neck from freezing temperatures and rain, and the “business in the front” kept hair off the forehead when temperature rose.

mullet madness

Centuries passed and the mullet was still a go-to hairstyle. Ancient Greek literature and art reveal that the mullet has been present in Western culture since the 6th century BCE. An excerpt from the Iliad by Homer is the first documentation of the mullet. Homer describes a group of warriors as having “their forelocks cropped, hair grown long at the backs.” 

There is debate, however, among researchers and experts about the purpose the mullet served -- then and now. Ancient art and hair experts Katherine Schwab and Marcie Rose say in a BBC article the mullet meant something completely different thousands of years ago than what the style means now. The pair say that the modern mullet exerts a message of individuality and rebellion, while ancient hairstyles, including the mullet, were tightly constricted to social norms and identity. The ancient mullets were just the prototype.

The Rise and Fall of the Mullet

The mullet as we know it grew to massive popularity in the 1980s. Paul McCartney traded the organized look of the Beatles and opted for a mullet, nicknamed the “Wings of Pegasus.” David Bowie stunned many with his character Ziggy Stardust who branded a vibrant red mullet. In a story read for the Moth, Suzi Ronson, the stylist behind the Stardust mullet, says that Bowie pointed to a model in a Japanese magazine for his inspiration.

“Well, you know, no one else has got short hair, you know,” she told him. “Nobody. You’d look really different.”

And Bowie did, although for just a while. Ronson’s cut lit the fuse for the mullet boom. As the mullet kept appearing in pop culture, promoted by rock stars, actors, and athletes, the shorter style started growing on everybody.

Mullets of the most extreme strain were made popular by celebrities: Billy Ray Cyrus, John Stamos, and Rod Stewart. The style soared past racial barriers as Black celebrities like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie embraced the flow. Unlike other hairstyles, the mullet was widely accepted to be gender neutral. Icons like Joan Jett and Cher gave the mullet a feminine touch while also giving femininity an edge. 

In an article from BBC, John Vial, a salon owner and lecturer at the University of London Arts, says that the style changed the boundaries of what is accepted from men and women. Women who sought a boyish look could keep it short up front, long in the back. The same principle applied to men who wanted more hair. Still, the mullet continued to break social barriers. The LGBTQ+ community found comfort in the style which granted gender-neutrality and a nonverbal cue of their sexuality.

In his book, Henderson says that whether someone was metal, country, punk, or jock, the mullet was everybody’s style. However, good things seldom last. After its 80s heyday, the mullet met its ultimate challenge: the 1990s.

The redneck stereotype got a brand-new haircut with the new decade. The mullet started leaving a bad taste in mouths when Jane Fonda shared the style with someone living in a trailer park. In 1994, popular rap group (and outspoken mullet haters) Beastie Boys released their track “Mullet Head,” an insult used to call someone who doesn’t have common sense. The song accompanied an article in their magazine, Grand Royal, ridiculing the mullet and those who dared to wear it.

What once was a premier hairstyle was swiftly swept under the rug. The mullet was abandoned by pop culture and reserved for those considered classless and “stupid enough,” according to the Beastie Boys, to want such a hideous, outdated cut. The “Kentucky waterfall” lay dormant for years up until recently.

 The Modern Mullet

In the Australian city of Kurri Kurri, citizens host an annual festival dedicated to the mullet. Mulletfest, founded in 2018, brings mullet lovers across the continent together to celebrate the style. Every year, a mullet champion is chosen.

In an unlikely comeback, the mullet regained its pop culture crown, given a boost by the pandemic lockdown. Hair collectively grew longer and shaggier. Although, when Joe Exotic from Tiger King commanded TV screens across the nation with his bleached mullet, people in desperate need of a haircut said, “I could do that.” The search results for “how to cut a mullet” on the Internet grew 124% since the Netflix original’s debut according to Cosmetify.

Before people could make hair appointments again, many mullets found on social media was the result of a DIY experiment. The newest trend during the lockdown period was giving yourself a mullet. Sophomore Trevor Kenner cut his mullet after he saw his sister’s boyfriend’s mullet.

“He just looked cool, and I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Kenner says. “College is definitely the time to get a haircut like this.”

The mullet became a social media sensation when celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Rihanna sported the cut. In this year alone, #mullet on Instagram conjures more than 800,000 pictures; the same hashtag garnering 2.2 billion views on TikTok

IBW describes the modern take as having “the basic characteristics of a classic mullet but with more gradient from the side and back, creating a less-dramatic -- but still bold -- haircut.” Emily Metzger, owner of Locks Salon in Lawrence, Kansas, calls it a shag.

“I’ve always been a fan of the shag haircut,” Metzger says. “It looks good on men and women. I think it’s really cool and perfect for this generation.”

Metzger is frequently up close and personal with mullets as her boyfriend visits her for frequent trims. She has yet, however, to fully cut one into existence.

“I’d love to,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the day when someone schedules an appointment and lets me know they want a mullet or shag.”

Whether the mullet looks professional is still a concern for those who have one. Skinner, a speech pathologist at Free State High School, worries that his haircut affects his credibility.

“When the students compliment my mullet, I always think that they’re joking,” he says. “It makes you feel small in a corporate setting. Anytime I’m supposed to meet new parents, I get worried because I remember that I have a mullet. Even sometimes when I walk past myself in the mirror, I laugh at how ridiculous I look.”

But even the mullet’s quirk doesn’t knock Skinner down.

simon

Groom-to-be, Simon Skinner, prepares for his big day by growing out his mullet. His groomsmen will join him in embracing the flow. 

The mullet remains a unique haircut, but as it gains popularity, it’s losing some of its rebellious edge. Models in high fashion runway shows like Gucci are frequently debuting mullets. Reigning Mulletfest champion Rob Ayton told BBC in an article that he originally got the mullet as “a middle finger to social norms.” 

However, individuality sparked from the mullets of the ‘80s continues to draw people in. Simply put, it’s reckless and fun, says sophomore Parker Hoenneger. As a college student, Hoenneger doesn’t see another prime chance for him to have the style.

“It does turn heads, but that’s what it's supposed to do. I don’t let it control me,” Hoenneger says. “It’s not a personality trait of mine. It’s just hair.”

Hoenneger says that anybody considering the style should go for it. He made a friend flip a coin to decide if they would adopt the cut.

parker

Sophomore student Parker Hoenneger profiles his mullet. 

“He’s actually at the barber’s right now,” Hoenneger said during the interview.

Metzger says that she anticipates the mullet will stick around for good this time. If the mullet can survive the ‘90s, it proves itself much more than an amusing hairstyle. People are debunking the negative sentiments against the mullet and reclaiming the style as a symbol of individuality with a new, improved look. Groom-to-be Skinner says that he does not regret his decision at all. 

“It’s a very empowering haircut,” Skinner says.   

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