Business Up Front With a Party in Back, the Mullet Returns (Really)

If you type “mullets are” into Google, a compelling list of thought finishers pops up: hot, ugly, weird, cool. Few hairstyles are as polarizing as the business-up-front, party-in-back optical illusion featuring a straight-on short cut that is quickly betrayed by cascading longer lengths down the neck. It provokes such strong feelings that the look has actually been argued over by legislators—banned in Iran in 2010 and forbidden in an Australian school just this March for being “untidy” and “nonconventional.”

But unusual times call for unusual haircuts. As the vaccine effort ramps up, hairstylists are reporting that their novelty-starved clients, emerging from a year in quarantine, are eager to embrace the drastic, statement-making style, which is fast becoming a symbol for this post­apocalyptic era and its promise for rebirth. 

“People want to stand out in a crowd, and there’s no better haircut than a mullet to do that,” says celebrity hairstylist Harry Josh, who is perhaps best known for crafting Gisele Bündchen’s ubiquitous golden beach waves in the early aughts—a very different moment from our own, which is decidedly devoid of barrel curls. “It’s one of the only haircuts that can be on a man, a woman, or a non­binary person,” confirms Mischa G., effectively describing the diverse clientele at Treehouse Social Club in downtown New York, where she has been cutting about five to seven mullets a week. It’s also surprisingly versatile, adds G.—elegant or punk, Middle Earth or feathery soft, à la the “shullet,” a cross between a mullet and a shag. “What makes it cool is its unapologetic effortlessness,” continues G. “A mullet doesn’t have to be maintained like a pixie or a sharp bob. Grow it in for six months and it still looks great.”

This maintenance-free promise only added to the mullet’s budding popularity during last spring’s lockdowns, when ersatz stylists had to rely on their own ingenuity—and everything from kitchen shears to craft scissors—while nonessential businesses remained closed. You can count second daughter Ella Emhoff among them. While stuck at home in Brooklyn, the model sculpted her own curls into a helmet-like mullet snipped high and tight above her ears. “I feel like in the past, the mullet was deemed unattractive and kind of odd, and I’m really drawn to that almost ugly-chic look,” says Emhoff, who showed off the idiosyncratic style in her runway debut for Proenza Schouler in February. The internet-breaking moment kicked off a truncated fall fashion schedule during which few shows were mullet-free: Simone Rocha gave the style a Renaissance spin in London; at Dolce & Gabbana in Milan, the look received an acid-bright rainbow makeover with a blunt micro fringe, while Brooklyn-based hairstylist Holli Smith embraced natural textures at Ferragamo and Sportmax for a fresh and edgy twist. Meanwhile, Anthony Turner mined Vidal Sassoon’s Mouche innovations of the 1960s at Raf Simons, adding a futuristic update via frizzy finishes and shocking-pink ombré dye jobs that Turner describes as “quite daring and left field.”

Mullets aren’t new, of course. According to British hair historian Rachael Gibson, they’ve actually been around for centuries. Used as a practical military tactic among Vikings and Romans, long hair in the back kept soldiers warm on the battlefield, while shorter hair in front was less likely to get yanked by an adversary. The style had a more recent resurgence in the ’70s, when the Ur-mullet burst onto the scene courtesy of David Bowie’s spiky red brush cut for his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust—a riff on a cut Bowie spotted in a 1971 magazine spread for designer Kansai Yamamoto and asked his mother’s hairdresser to re-create. Now it’s being reinterpreted by a new generation of pop superstars, with Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Troye Sivan all adopting the style in the last year alone. “I had one option, and I needed it,” Cyrus joked last year of the lockdown cut she got from her mother, Tish, who warned the “Prisoner” hitmaker that the lone style she knew how to do was the one she gave Miley’s father, mullet icon Billy Ray Cyrus, in the ’90s. (Veteran stylist Sally Hershberger later stepped in to mastermind Miley’s current feathery shoulder-length shag with a choppy fringe.)

The mullet’s shape-shifting potential is a big part of its appeal, suggests Emhoff. “The more you have this style, the more you want to push the limits of how mullet-y you can get it,” says the first daughter of Bushwick, who pushed those limits for these pages, courtesy of Masami Hosono. Hosono, who runs Vacancy Project, a gender-neutral hair salon in New York’s East Village, has been perfecting the style for the Brooklyn art school set since they opened their doors in 2016. “Everybody used to make fun of mullets,” they say. “Now everybody wants one.” For this story, Hosono added a shaggy texture to the top of Emhoff’s hair while tapering the bottom, taking it “from a square shape to more jellyfish-looking.”

But even as it enters the mainstream, mullet-wearing still requires a certain amount of élan, according to Los Angeles–based stylist Jared Henderson, who outfitted the musician Doja Cat with what he describes as a “soft-serve” mullet—a chic bi-level cut with subtle layers—for her Roberto Cavalli–clad Grammy Awards debut this year. “It oozes, ‘I’m this confident being, and I really couldn’t care less about what people say, because I know I’m rocking the hell out of this hairstyle.’ ” Henderson did have some of his own reservations about the cut, he admits. “It was nerve-racking because we got some side eyes, like, ‘Is she really about to go out on her first Grammys with a mullet?’ ” Instead of winding up on Instagram’s The Shade Room, Henderson’s work was embraced on the platform, where it was proclaimed one of 2021’s first big hair moments.

Hair historian Gibson is among the social-media stans celebrating the mullet’s return. “These days, hairdressers bemoan that while hair is still styled, we don’t see interesting cuts anymore,” she says. “But adversity tends to breed creativity, and a lot more unconventional hair choices are coming out of lockdown.” Long may they continue.

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Originally Appeared on Vogue