A Catholic school in Melbourne, Australia, is facing a student backlash over new dress code regulations, which include a ban on mullet hairstyles.
Students at Emmanuel Catholic College have made a serious pushback against regulations announced last month which include a prohibition on dreadlocks, which students say has racially-biased implications.
“Dreadlocks are commonly worn by people of colour, and due to them being deemed as unacceptable, it raises questions and concerns of racial bias within the college,” students wrote in an open letter of protest to the new policies.
The regulations, communicated to students Sept. 26, also include strict limits on jewelry and makeup for female students, as well as banning visible tattoos and artificially dyed hair colors for students.
But in Australia, the new regulations have gained national attention for their prohibition of another apparently popular hairstyle: the mullet.
The school’s policy singles out mullets as one of a list of “excessive” hairstyles now prohibited, triggering fierce debate about the status and significance of the coiffure in Australian culture.
“Mullets are a popular Australian hairstyle and it’s unclear why it is deemed as unacceptable, as many students have mullet hairstyles already despite the expectations and are often not extreme,” students wrote in their open letter.
The letter was accompanied by a petition which has attracted dozens of signatures.
Janine Biggin, the school principal who banned the mullet, told The Guardian’s Australian edition that the ban was “a matter of equity, comfort, and safety, along with pride in the college.”
But Biggin added that the school was committed to “ongoing listening to the voice and views of our young people” which she said “is also an important consideration.”
The mullet style, in which hair is closely trimmed at the top and sides of the head but left to flow at length over the neck and shoulders, has seen a cyclical rise and fall in social significance and fashion throughout Western cultural history.
But the haircut has long had associations with social subversion perhaps informing the decision of school administrators to ban it, despite student protests that it is not necessarily “extreme.”
The mullet has also, for decades, been a hallmark of Australian sporting heroes and pop culture icons, and synonymous with physical and romantic prowess.
But beyond contemporary fashions and its prevalence among sporting and media icons, the mullet has deep cultural significance in Australia.
“Australians love mullets because we consider ourselves to be ‘larrakins,’” Weaver explained. “And the history of the larrakin is a very interesting thing.”
The term is widely used in Australia to denote a not-malicious rule breaker, or ne'er do well, though it was originally coined in the 18th century to describe members of urban working class youth gangs.
Weaver said that larrakins, often known for sporty mullets, are an important part of Australian cultural history, who made use of “fashion as a form of rebellion.” She added that the modern Australian mullet is a “descendant of the extreme, self-made hairstyles of the larrakins.”
“The meaning of the mullet here is very much linked to Australianness,” Weaver told the BBC.
While the mullet has a particular cultural significance in Australia, the haircut has a nearly 3,000 year history in Western culture, and its association with rebellious youth culture is similarly rooted in antiquity.
The first recorded description of the mullet occurs in Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad,” written in the eighth century BC, and chronicling the Trojan war.
The poet describes a detachment of spearmen from the Abantes, a Proto-Greek tribe of Thracian origin, as being distinguished by having “their forelocks cropped, hair grown long at the backs.” The purpose of the style is believed by historians to accommodate the wearing of a helmet in battle, avoiding the risk of soldiers’ hair falling in their eyes, while retaining a long, flowing mane considered to be an intimidating sign of virility.
In the centuries since, the style has retained its martial associations. By the sixth century BC, the haircut, known as the “Hun cut” became standard among popular chariot racers in the Roman Empire, and was adopted by their crowds of young, unruly, often violent followers, known as “hooligans.”
Benjamin Franklin, the prominent American Freemason and diplomat, sported a version of the style which he called the “skullet” while on assignment to France in the years following the Revolutionary War.
Franklin adopted the haircut as part of his cultivated image as an uncouth backwoodsman, which he used to charm the late-era French royal court; the style was then adopted by many during the French Revolution.
In the last century, the look re-emerged as an adaptable cultural signifier sported in often conflicting contexts.
The recording artist David Bowie is often credited with popularizing the look as a symbol of androgyny and sexual ambiguity through his stage character Ziggy Stardust.
At the same time, the mullet was adopted by sportsmen across the world as a symbol of working class aggression and intimidation.
Despite its roots in ancient history, the term “mullet” was only coined in 1994 by the groundbreaking recording artists and social commentators Ad-Rock, Mikey D, and MCA.
In the seminal track “Mullet Head,” released under the group’s collective name of Beastie Boys, the haircut is described in detail with reference to important contemporary cultural figures like Belgian actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme, elevator jazz pioneer Kenny G, and achy-breaky heart sufferer Billy Ray Cyrus.
In “Mullet Head,” the instructions for creating a haircut are specified as “A number one on the side and don't touch the back. Number six on the top and don't cut it wack, Jack.”