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courtesy @mimiwade

How the Mallen streak became a sign of witchy otherness and alt girl beauty


TextDaniel Rodgers

From Billie Eilish’s slime green roots to Mimi Wade’s silver streak, we explore the cultural history of Instagram’s latest hair trend

From medieval baddies to Instagram’s most offbeat it girls, the Mallen streak has become the ultimate symbol of alt beauty: communicating glamour, danger and deviance. Naturally occurring (the result of a condition called Poliosis) or dyed, the Mallen streak refers to a bolt of traditionally but not always white hair styled at someone’s hairline, in a single stripe, block fringe or full half and half look. Throughout history, this forelock of hair has proven synonymous with evil and the same symbolism has ricocheted throughout pop culture - think X Men’s Rogue or the Bride of Frankenstein. 

Yet, in spite of these damning connotations, real-life women come back to embrace the Mallen streak time and time again. It first broke through to the mainstream in the 50s as a part of rockabilly culture, but it's only just becoming a dominant trend now in its own right. Today you’ll recognise it as naturally occurring on the likes of US politician Tulsi Gabbard, or in a high-octane neon on visual artist Princess Gollum. In 2019, the style reads as a powerful symbol of defiance and transgression in the face of social and gender inequality.

So here’s everything you need to know:

IT’S RELATED TO FOLKLORE 

Despite a long history of folkloric connotations, the term ‘Mallen streak’ has only been around since the 70s. It originally comes from the Latin ‘malignus’ (meaning bad kind) and was first coined by pop novelist Catherine Cookson in her ‘Mallen’ trilogy. The novels follow the lives of a doomed family who all share the hereditary streak. As Cookson writes, “it was said that those who bore the streak seldom reached old age and that nothing good ever came of a Mallen.” 

Back in the medieval era, when the lynching of women was big business, a naturally occurring ‘Witch’s Streak’, as it was then known, quickly became one of the tell-tale signs of witchcraft. This, alongside other naturally occurring physical traits such as moles, birthmarks and third nipples, were considered outward signs of inner sin. Over time, this coding of the female body became wrapped up in our collective subconscious and so the Mallen streak became another icon of female transgression.

Why then, almost a millennium later, does the same style endure? Well, “the witch is never not in vogue,” says witchcraft expert Charlotte Richardson Andrews. For Richardson Andrews, embracing these deviant codes can be a powerful way of “reclaiming our agency”. 

Team this with seismic shifts surrounding gender identity and you have a hairstyle which opposes, “all that the straight gaze seeks to homogenise and sanitise”. To be a witch, after all, is to be queer, and out of that overlapping struggle is “a hard-won resilience that shows up culturally in our embrace of alternative beauty”, which is something the Mallen streak perfectly embodies.

IT’S A SYMBOL OF EVIL IN POP CULTURE

Cruella de Vil, Bellatrix Lestrange, Lily Munster, Rogue, Bride of Frankenstein. There’s a long list of female villains who have been characterised by a signature silver streak at the front of their head. They’re the kind of unapologetic, charismatic baddies that you can’t help but be fascinated with. In Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s book ‘The 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil is ''showy” and “noticeable” - an icon of glamour who only sleeps in ermine sheets. Her now-iconic hairstyle is a symbol of this untouchability, “parted severely down the middle, one half of it was black and the other white - rather unusual”.  

Jennifer Goldstein, Beauty & Health Director of Marie Claire, has a naturally   Mallen streak but stresses the huge deal of inspiration that some women take from these characters. For Goldstein, this is due in part to the fact that “many women were brought up being told to smile or play nice”. “So, at a certain point, probably when the #MeToo movement gained momentum, a lot of women realised they don't have to ‘play nice’ anymore.” Surely, then, this would mean embracing the darker side of their personalities, too. 

London-based videographer, Liv Hempsted, who has a dyed Mallen streak, echoes this sentiment: “after I did it I realised the connection to these characters”. For Hempsted, “it’s the power that it brings. The silent respect,” which makes her feel seen. While these villains may not be loved for their moral compass, “they are respected as strong, powerful women who fight for what they want.''

In this way, the Mallen streak represents a refusal to acquiesce to the demands of men. And what are characters like Cruella, if not icons of this? In ‘The 101 Dalmations’, when asked for her married name, Cruella replies “I am the last of my family so I made my husband change his name to mine”. It’s this absolute autonomy which, to women like Hempsted, “is empowering, is growth”. 

IT’S A FEMINIST TROPE IRL 

It was during the 50s, that the Mallen streak really gained momentum, as part of rockabilly culture. Bleaching kits were sold in local pharmacies and ‘How To’ articles published in women’s magazines helped catapult the trend into the mainstream. For the first time the Mallen streak, known at the time as a hair flash, really became a status symbol - having been glamorised by actresses such as Alicia Lotti and Anita Collins. Given its rebellious connotations, it’s no surprise that women of the 50s began to embrace the Mallen streak - a period defined by the trappings of domesticity and gender conformity. 

The Mallen streak was later reflected back by public figureheads such as Susan Sontag, (whose streak was naturally occurring due to Poliosis) and Caitlin Moran - binding the style ever closer to the aesthetic codes of feminism. After the 50s, women would begin to wear the Mallen streak as a marker of feminism, perhaps in homage to post-war emancipation and its role in paving the way for the sexual revolution of the 60s. For Moran at least, the dyed “white hair streak is [a] calling card” and like Tulsi Gabbard’s stripe is a refusal to fade into conformity. 

Current updates of the Mallen streak, in thinner, wispy blonde tendrils seem to take closer cues from iconic 00s proponents of girl power - think Geri Halliwell in her ginger heyday, Lisa Scott-Lee or Tulisa (the female boss). While the overall effect of the look is less stark, the revolutionist solidarity remains the same. “I think it’s just about us claiming that power back and resetting the boundaries,” says Hempsted.

IT SOMETIMES OCCURS NATURALLY 

For a small percentage of people, the Mallen streak will occur naturally - known scientifically as Poliosis, which can appear at birth but often reveals itself much later. Not to be confused with greying, it’s characterised by an absence of pigment in the hair and it can also present as a symptom of more serious congenital disorders, such as Piebaldism or Waardenburg syndrome which affects approximately 1 per cent and 1/40000 people respectively. “I wish people would know that there are people, like me, who have this naturally,” says Jiyoo Shin, a student with Piebaldism whose family moved from South Korea to Austria for fear of prejudice.

Still, natural ‘streakers’ are hesitant to call out the trend as appropriation. For Goldstein, whose streak appeared when she was 15, a dyed strip is “simply creative self-expression” and is at most “a form of flattery”. In fact, Goldstein stopped dying over her Mallen streak, having been inspired by British make-up artist Alex Box (who dyes her hair for a similar effect) - “I just kept thinking, “Huh. I have that streak. I could just do something like that naturally!”

It would seem that the Mallen streak’s rise to mainstream fashion and representation in pop culture has helped these women to embrace their sign of difference. When Goldstein made the decision to stop dying over her streak, she started, “getting more compliments on (her) hair,” and now, “people are always calling out X-men names when they pass by me. And that’s totally fine!” It feels like a powerful move. And as a woman, it is. It’s a fuck you to heteronormative standards of beauty, in particular, those which conflate white hair and difference with a lack of desirability.  

IT’S A SYMBOL OF ALT BEAUTY

Like the very magic it is said to embody, the Mallen streak shapeshifts in and out of style. From the 50s rockabillies to the 00s rock chicks, each incarnation carries the currency of a trend steeped in ‘witchy’ otherness. 

It’s no surprise then, that some of Instagram’s most offbeat it girls, fashion designer Mimi Wade, model Gayoung, artist Princess Gollum and even Billie Eilish have become the alt poster girls of the trend. In their embrace of alternative beauty, women like Wade play with the very notions of outsiderdom inherent to the Mallen streak. 

Sapphire Driver, BLEACH London brand manager says the Mallen streak, “has definitely increased in popularity this year,” with customers usually citing Mimi Wade as their reference point. “I always felt it was so cool that even when she didn’t say anything, Mimi Wade’s hair told stories,” says Hempsted. And indeed, the potential for storytelling is rich. For Princess Gollum, the style is, “what you want it to be,” but it’s also about, “acknowledging our power and embracing all forms of femininity,” be that witch, villain, feminist, or alt babe - or even all four. 

Driver says as the style evolves, “people will continue to experiment more with colour variations”. But between Princess Gollum’s slime green, cut and paste streak and Wade’s silver block job, it would seem we are already there. Now enter the E-Girl, the internet subculture popularised on TikTok. With their pastel half-and-halfs, there is an obvious semiotic link to the duality of the Mallen streak, positioning Gen Z’s answer to the emo as the latest manifestation of the medieval hags, Cruella's and rockabillies that came before. After all, as Richardson Andrews says: “The witch is everywhere, always”.

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