Business in the front, partisan in the back? Why fashion’s most contested hairstyle has made its return

Mullets

By Tom Vaughan

‘History repeats itself’ is the phrase that springs to mind when thinking about one particular hairstyle — the mullet.

Best known for its ‘business in the front, party in the back’ tagline, the short meets long hybrid haircut has been shifting in and out of fashion for decades. Now the year 2020, the mullet has once again made its comeback, as many begin to don the hairstyle once more. But the resurgence of this divisive style begs the question, why? With this in mind, it is important to look back at the mullet’s history and consider the socio-cultural and political periods that gave way to this iconic, or rather debatable hairstyle.

A brief history of the mullet

In his book, Mullet Madness, Alan Henderson charts the mullet’s origins all the way back to the prehistoric era. According to his research, the hairstyle was likely worn for practical reasons, whereby people would wear their hair short at the front to keep it from obstructing their eyes, while added length at the back would help keep their necks warm. Clever, right?

Cut to the 1970s and it’s David Bowie that reps the style next, who, in 1972, paved the way with a garish-orange version of the mullet for his rock star alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust. Known for his androgynous style, the singer pushed the boundaries of fashion in a time where gender norms continued to prevail – and his mullet symbolised this perfectly. But, while Bowie set the trend for the glam rock wannabes of the 70s, it wasn’t until the following decade that this notorious hairstyle fully took root.

Now for the glory years of the mullet — the 80s. The decade took this divisive style from the margins, bringing it well into the mainstream. Everybody had the hairstyle, from Hollywood film stars like Rob Lowe to pop icons like Cher, short at the front and long in the back was the hair worn by those who were on trend, in style and well… cool. In America, the tail end of the decade brought the mullet to lesbian culture, and the two became indistinguishably linked. The hairstyle was a way of signifying your sexual identity, as seen in the documentary American Mullet, which shows a number of women speaking out about the positive use of the hairstyle as a tool for their self-expression.

However, despite its acclaim, it wasn’t until the 90s when the term ‘mullet’ officially came into being. Coined by the American rock group, The Beastie Boys, the word first appeared in the Oxford dictionary following the release of their song, Mullet Head. But despite its inception, the decade saw a decline in the number of people opting for the cut. It’s not totally clear what caused this shift in popularity, but the growing stigma against the style certainly had something to do with it. The hairstyle became synonymous with ‘white trash,’ worn by those who were seen to have a low income and a low intellect. Celebrities like Richard Anderson and Mario Lopez succumbed to popular opinion and lopped off their mullets. Singer/songwriter Wesley Willis even wrote a song about it called Cut The Mullet.

Fast forward to now and the mullet has well and truly made its return. Featured in the pages of fashion magazines, on social media and even the red carpets, the hairstyle has slowly crept its way back into the mainstream. The American actress and singer, Zendaya, rocked the mullet back in 2016 at the 58th Grammy Awards, while pop-star Miley Cyrus fell suit to the trend earlier this year. Known for her rebellious persona, the wrecking ball singer took to Instagram to show off her new hairstyle in a picture captioned: ‘New Hair. New Year. NEW MUSIC!’.

Is the mullet protesting something today?

So, why the mullet’s return now? Well, it can’t all be down to Miley Cyrus’s popularisation of the do, but it could be a contributing factor.

In fact, when comparing the social and political landscape of Britain today to when the hairstyle was last in its prime, its return is perhaps all but surprising. Take the 80’s for example, Thatcher’s Britain. A time where government nostalgia for Britain in the ‘good old days’ brought nothing but hardship through a series of rigorous cuts on national spending. This in turn led to a rise in UK subcultures like punk, where a disenchanted youth, frustrated by their government, came together in spite of the mainstream – and many sported the mullet too.

Today, the UK is not so different. Having entered its greatest recession in history earlier this year, and while the ongoing effects of the Coronavirus pandemic continue to restrict our daily lives, 2020 has left Britain feeling discernibly bleak. As unemployment levels continue to surge and the future prospects of today’s youth become narrower, it is easy to see what might have inspired the mullet’s arrival once more.

Standing out against the crowd

What seems clear is that, throughout history, the link between the mullet’s appearance both now and in the past is its social significance. In times of social and/or political fragility, the mullet has been used by people to stand out against the crowd and make a point. “It sounds silly but it’s tied to a longer tradition of using whatever means are available,” said one man, when asked what might have prompted the mullet’s revival. “Whether [it’s] a haircut, wearing lipstick, or changing the way you use language,” it’s about using these “in order to attach to a particular identity.” As a result, the mullet can be seen as a way of positioning oneself in the face of convention. It stretches further than just being a haircut, or just being a trend. Instead, it becomes a way of declaring who you are and what you stand for, a way of expressing your identity – be it sexual, political, or any other… and loudly.

So, why not take yourself down to your local hairdressers and ask for short on the top and long in the back? Or not. But, whether you love or hate it, it would seem that fashion’s most fickle hairstyle is here to stay… well, at least for a year or two.

Illustration by Sophie Williamson