Today, the mullet—a hairstyle featuring long, glorious locks in the back, and neatly cropped hair in the front and sides—is as much a punchline as a personal style. A precious few can get away with it, like Dr. Eugene Porter on AMC's The Walking Dead. Josh McDermitt, the actor who plays Porter, even claims the mullet has its own fan base. "Everybody wants to know about the mullet,” he's said. "They want to take pictures with the mullet and not me.” But for the rest of us, sporting a mullet is announcing to the world that you are not someone who should be taken seriously.
This wasn’t always the case. There was a period of time, known as the late-’80s/ early-’90s, when the mullet was actually considered cool. And you might not realize this, but the hairstyle itself goes back much further in cultural history.
There are probably a lot of things that would surprise you about the mullet. Maybe even 13 things. Read on, and prepare to find new appreciation for the lowly mullet.
1. The word “mullet” enters the language along with the Mugilidae family of edible spiny-finned fish, often referred to as “mullets” or “grey mullets.” The name is derived from the Greek “myllos,” which is related to “melos,” meaning “of darkish color.”
2. The term “mullet-head” has been used as a way to call somebody stupid since at least the mid-19th Century. In fact, American humorist Mark Twain used it in 1885’s Huckleberry Finn, in which Tom Sawyer called his aunt and uncle “confiding and mullet-headed.” Burn!
3. The word “mullet,” as we understand it today, seems to have been bestowed upon society by the Beastie Boys. According to no less authoritative a source than the Oxford English Dictionary, the hip-hop/punk band “apparently coined, and certainly popularized” the descriptor in the 1994 song “Mullet Head,” in which Ad-Rock sings, “You wanna know what's a mullet? Well, I got a little story to tell about a hairstyle that's a way of life,” and “Cut the sides, don't touch the back.”
4. The first published use of the word, one year later, is also thanks to the B-Boys In Issue 2 of their now-defunct magazine, Grand Royal, Beastie member Mike D is credited as pinning the pejorative “mullet head” to the idiosyncratic hairstyle, in an article titled “Mulling Over the Mullet.” By way of explanation, it offers: “The mullet fish basically has no neck, and a fish rots from the neck down, so that may be where the slang derives from, especially since most human Mullet Heads achieve this same effect via excessive hair and musculature.”
5. Incidents of the hairstyle were documented more than 1,400 years ago, when Byzantine scholar Procopius wrote of a craze among young Roman men in the 6th Century BCE, who sought to emulate the look of Hun barbarians by growing their hair long all around the head except across the forehead, where they kept it cut short.
6. Mullet expert Alan Henderson—author of Mullet Madness!: The Haircut That's Business Up Front and a Party in the Back—claims that archeological evidence seems to support the likelihood that many members of ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, Syria, and Asia Minor, wore proto-mullets, possibly to keep their necks warm and dry, but their eyes unobstructed.
7. James K. Polk—who, perhaps unsurprisingly, was born just outside Charlotte, North Carolina—has the distinction of being the only sitting president to sport a mullet. His kept the Oval Office long in the back and short in the front from 1845 to 1849.
8. The modern popularity of the mullet is often ascribed to glam rock superstar (and all-around weird guy) David Bowie, who in 1972 adopted the hairstyle for his onstage alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, or maybe not, depending on who you ask. Barney Hoskyns, author of The Mullet: Hairstyle of the Gods, called it "the only cool mullet that there's ever been." But Dylan Jones, editor of GQ UK, claims otherwise. The mullet, he says, is "a very pejorative word... and (Bowie's Ziggy hair) wasn't a mullet." Let's all agree to disagree.
9. Shortly thereafter, former Beatle Paul McCartney further solidified the mullet’s place in pop culture when he began a long and storied relationship with the hairstyle during the mid-70s. Critics were not pleased. One writer complained that the mullet made Paul "look like an acolyte of Florence Henderson," and added "it's less a question of fashion etiquette than of severe mental myopia."
10. In 1993, iconic comic book character Superman appeared for the first time on the cover of The Adventures of Superman with a mullet flapping gloriously in his wake. This fashion époque for the Man of Steel lasted four years and 39 issues before he finally changed barbers.
11. The widespread popularity of the mullet began to wane in the mid-to-late ‘90s, as the hair style started to become a mainstream object of ridicule. Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than cult singer-songwriter Wesley Willis’ 1998 song, “Cut the Mullet.”
12. Though the post-millennial-irony-drenched descriptor “business in the front, party in the back” is of unknown origin (and likely a bit of cultural flotsam), it seems to have gained widespread popularity in 2000, when Georgia native Matt Smith—a proud mullet enthusiast, though not an adopter himself—uttered it on MTV’s The Real World.
13. In 2010, the government of Iran banned the mullet as an acceptable hairstyle for men, claiming it was part of a "Western cultural invasion.” Barbershops were raided and serial offenders were issued steep fines. (First time mullet owners were given a complimentary and less decadent haircut.) This represents one of the only policies of the fundamentalist state that average Americans on the street can get behind.