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From Ancient Greece to 'Tiger King': The Hilarious History of the Mullet

mullet
Participant Aaron Styles poses for a photograph during Mulletfest 2020, an annual competition that celebrates the infamous hairstyle while helping support local charities at the Chelmsford Hotel on Feb. 29, 2020 in Kurri Kurri, Australia. Sam Mooy/Getty Images

For scores of people self-quarantining this month, there has been only one reliable source of solace: Netflix's "Tiger King." The truly bizarre, shocking, upsetting and highly entertaining docuseries centers on the interwoven lives of America's most notorious big cat owners. But aside from the main plot's drama and devastation, there's one hard-to-ignore detail that viewers can't help hyper-focusing on: the shocking array of mullets.

"Oh, you don't want me to take that off," the film's bleach-blonde lead, Joe Exotic, says to the filmmakers who have suggested he remove his baseball cap. "Your whole audience will say, 'oh my god, that guy has a mullet!'"

To think that someone like Mr. Exotic (later seen casually threatening to torture and murder his rivals) is so mortified by the prospect of being ridiculed for his hairdo really says something about the mullet. But where did this offbeat, if not iconic, style come from, and why is it still such a talked about piece of pop culture today?

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What Is a Mullet?

It may be an oft-quoted cliché, but there's simply no simpler way to describe the mullet than "Business in the Front, Party in the Back." The distinct hairstyle (seriously, there's no mistaking a mullet) involves a short trim on the top and sides of the head, and some length left at the back. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (yes, the mullet is included in the Oxford English Dictionary), the legendary Beastie Boys might be responsible for popularizing the term. On the track "Mullet Head" from their 1994 album, "Ill Communication," the trio's Ad-Rock raps, "You wanna know what's a mullet?/Well I got a little story to tell/About a hairstyle, that's a way of life/Have you ever seen a mullet wife?"

One year later, the group's Mike D. wrote in the magazine Grand Royal that the song lyrics referenced the fish of the same name. "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," he wrote.

But the mullet itself had life long before the Beasties name checked it. And while most people may associate the specific style with the 1980s and early '90s (thanks to everyone from Andre Agassi to Billy Ray Cyrus), the mullet's reputation dates back to an era long before "Saved By the Bell" and "Full House."

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Billy Ray Cyrus of Brother Clyde sports his trademark mullet at The Roxy on July 29, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

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Where Did the Mullet Come From?

According to her comprehensive piece for History.com, Linda Lacina writes that "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.' In fact, the mullet (also known, by the way, as the Kentucky Waterfall and the Missouri Compromise) may have been a somewhat common, if not practical, choice in ancient — even prehistoric — times.

In a story for Dazed Digital, Oliver Lunn references the book "Mullet Madness," in which author Alan Henderson says that "prehistoric peoples would likely have discovered the practical benefit of cutting their fringe to keep it out of their eyes while extra growth at the back would keep their necks warm and protected from the rain." Lunn also points out there are also Greek statues that date back to the 6th century B.C.E. that "show mullets were at the inception of western culture." And of course, Ancient Roman chariot racers, as well as 16th century Hittite warriors, the Assyrians, and the Egyptians all sported "hockey hair" long before the look was associated with that particular sport.

It seems mullets began to be the butt of jokes sometime in the 19th century. In 1855's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain writes that Tom Sawyer called his aunt and uncle 'confiding and mullet-headed.' And apparently he didn't mean either of those things as compliments. That, however, didn't stop any higher-ups from adopting the look. According to Dennis DiClaudio of Men's Health Magazine, James K. Polk, who occupied the White House from 1845 to 1849 "has the distinction of being the only sitting president to sport a mullet."

As the years went on, the mullet was interpreted in a multitude of ways. While music legend David Bowie rocked what Barney Hoskyns, author of "The Mullet: Hairstyle of the Gods" called "the only cool mullet that there's ever been," Dylan Jones, editor of GQ UK, argued that "mullet" itself is "a very pejorative word ... and (Bowie's Ziggy hair) wasn't a mullet." Whether you consider Bowie's locks an accurate representation of the mullet or a subversive response to its status as a cultural staple, we can all admit the mullet had a moment in Bowie's heydey of the 1970s, and continued to gain traction into the '80s and '90s.

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The Modern Mullet

So where does that leave us today? Believe it or not, mullets are still very much a thing, and not just on the heads of big cat owners of the South, like Joe Exotic. "My professional experience dealing with mullets is that I do not like cutting traditional ones, but the rocker mullets are fun to cut," says master hair stylist and colorist Annette Avila, founder and owner of San Francisco's Lavish Hair & Makeup Studio. "I do remember seeing them quite a lot as a teen in the mid-'90s but was not a fan back then since I was more into the punk scene. As a kid I actually did have one but by accident when I cut my own hair and really messed it up! I cut the sides super short and ended up with a mullet that I had until my hair grew out."

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Former Major League Baseball player Jose Canseco at his newly opened Jose Canseco's Showtime Car Wash on Oct. 30, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

Although Avila says clients rarely come into her salon requesting a mullet, she does think celebrities like Zendaya and Lady Gaga are reclaiming the coif and making it more mainstream. "I think that depending on the celebrity, the modern mullet can totally look chic," she says. "It's all in how you wear it."

Does that mean it's time to run to your local stylist with an urgent mullet request? Well, maybe not. "My honest opinion is 'yuck' on the traditional mullets, however the modern razor shaggy mullets are actually really cute and some can look really good depending on their style if it is cut right," Avila says. "The cutting technique depends on what tools are used to do the cut. For instance, scissors versus clippers versus a razor. I prefer using a razor. When I cut the modern shaggy mullet, I start with the sides and move to the top then the back."

So in conclusion, go forth and mullet if your heart so desires, but understand that you may very well encounter some strong opinions as your hair blows (at varying lengths) in the breeze.

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