The bi-level. The Kentucky waterfall. The Missouri compromise. Hockey hair. No matter what it’s called, there’s more to the mullet than just light beer, Camaros and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The short-long hair style, popularized in the 1980s, has a surprisingly proud history and has been sported by rebels and respected leaders alike.
While literature’s first mullet mention may have come from the ancient Greek poet Homer—in The Iliad, he described the Abantes, a group of spearmen, as wearing “their forelocks cropped, hair grown long at the backs,”—the term “mullet” wasn’t actually coined until 1994, thanks to the Beastie Boys’ song “Mullet Head.” The Oxford English Dictionary credits the hip-hop group as the first to use “mullet” to describe the high-low cut that’s long been described as “business up front and a party in the back.”
The mullet’s practical, adaptable shape has given it centuries-long staying power. It likely helped early peoples keep their necks warm and dry, according to Alan Henderson in his book Mullet Madness, a history of the look. Warriors with the style were harder to grab during battle and could fight without the frustration of hair in their eyes. Helmets fit better with a short-on-top do.
In ancient Rome, the “Hun cut” was an early bi-level style sported by young wealthy bands of hooligans in the 6th century B.C., many of whom, not unlike today’s soccer fans, supported differing factions in one of the popular sports of the day: chariot races. They harassed the citizenry while styled like Rome’s worst enemies: the fierce nomadic horsemen who terrorized the empire and helped hasten its fall. “The hair on their heads they cut off in front back to the temples,” wrote the 6th-century Greek-Byzantine scholar Procopius in his Secret History, “leaving the part behind to hang down to a very great length in a senseless fashion.” The effect was likely strange and shocking, says author Gordon Doherty, whose history-based Legionary series is set in the 4th-century Roman empire.
In the late 18th century, Ben Franklin used his “skullet” to help charm France into drastically increasing its financial and diplomatic support of America in the new nation’s earliest days. Despite his own intellectual, cosmopolitan background, Franklin cannily played the role of a rough-hewn, new-world sage—shocking the French courts with his plain, unpowdered hair at a time when status was measured in finery and tall, powdered wigs brushed the roofs of nobles’ carriages. (He also donned a simple brown suit for meeting the king instead of draping himself in silk and medals.) His savvy marketing promoted modesty and equality while rejecting the excess of France’s waning, out-of-touch monarchist class. His ideas—and styles—would later find takers among French revolutionaries.
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During the 1800s, Chief Joseph and members of his Nez Perce tribe kept their long traditional hairstyle with spiky bangs in front, braids at the side and waterfall in back, despite pressure from missionaries to adopt the close-cropped fashion of the time. Long hair carried spiritual weight with the Nez Perce, and Joseph’s refusal showed there wasn’t just one way for Americans to look or act, says Daniel Sharfstein, author of Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. Joseph’s hair, says Sharfstein, “showed the power of political protest and moral witness” at a time when his people were fiercely fighting against forced relocation from their homeland.
Fast forward to the early 1970s, when David Bowie’s iconic orange mullet—part of his “Ziggy Stardust” persona—became a defining look for a difficult decade marked by Watergate, the gas crisis and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. His radical androgynous style, which combined what were traditionally seen as male (short) and female (long) elements, not only “pushed the margins of hair and dress,” according to hair historian Janet Stephens; it challenged ideas on identity and gender boundaries. He first rocked the cut in 1972, the same year of his coming-out press conference, during which he declared himself and fellow glam rocker Lou Reed to be signs of cultural decline: “Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people, absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.”
His look would be reimagined by top rock bands and A-list actors, dominating styles for decades.
Of course, backlash was inevitable. Despite ongoing popularity with hockey players and heavy metal fans, mullets today are often dismissed as a tacky fashion “don’t.” S to give the cut and rockers like Bono confess their regrets for ever wearing one.
In 2010, Iran banned the cut, hoping to stop the spread of what it called a “Western invasion.” The result? Asking for a mullet became, as it has been for centuries, an act of cultural rebellion.