More Cowbell: Homecoming Mums and Garters | Digital Traditions

More Cowbell: Homecoming Mums and Garters
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by Tori Espensen-Sturges. Espensen-Sturges is an Experimental Psychology major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2008 class "Folklife in America."

From September to November around the state of Texas, one sound can be heard – the ringing of cowbells attached to homecoming mums and garters. “One of my teachers senior year hated mums and garters, and he said that if they jingled during class he would cut off the bells,” remembers Marin Mueller, from Plano. “We all had to take them off before we went to his class and had to tiptoe into the classroom to put them down.”1 To most of the country, these festooned flowers seem gaudy and ridiculous, but in Texas, they represent a tradition as strong as high school football itself. Homecoming mums are large silk chrysanthemums decorated with long ribbon streamers, trinkets, and, of course, cowbells representing the person wearing them and the school they attend. They are made in the school’s colors and can be decorated to reflect involvement in a sports team, musical organization, or other club. Modern mums are often made with two or three flowers and stuffed animals. Whether a single, a double, or a triple, the first mum is typically worn pinned to the chest. Smaller versions, typically with ribbons about eighteen inches long, are attached to garters for boys to wear on their arm. Like a typical corsage/boutonnière exchange, a girl will typically buy her date’s garter and a boy will buy his date’s mum, although oftentimes parents will buy them for their sons and daughters.

Mums as Folklore

For the people of Texas, homecoming mums and garters are definitely folk objects. To determine their status as folk object, we can examine how they fit in to Elliot Oring’s indicators: 1) Communal – Homecoming mums and garters are not only shared by the people of Texas, they serve as a rallying point and a representation of a state identity. They are transmitted face to face between people who share common ideologies and values; 2) Personal – From the perspective of both the maker and the client, homecoming mums are passed on face to face. Many florists who have been making mums for many years, such as Kathi Thomas, learned from their parents. Most other current makers have learned from other florists, either in their shop or, as is the case of Pam Fullerton of Bloomers, from shows and workshops. Students learn about the tradition from older siblings, parents, or other students; 3) Common – The traditions surrounding homecoming, including mums and garters, have been so ingrained into the minds of Texans that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them. Nathan Vance of Corpus Christi expressed shock that “they don’t do that in other places.” When interviewed about their feelings on the tradition, a common thread was the phrase “I’ve never really thought about it before;” 4) Informal – Although many people buy their mums and garters from more formal institutions (florists), many get them from crafters or make them themselves. Even in more formal settings, the method of transmission is very definite informal; 5) Traditional – Despite this variation, there are still a definite traditional aspect to mums and garters. The meaning and symbolism them have not changed over time, and are nearly identical around the state. Another consistency is the use of chrysanthemums, school letters, and ribbon. No matter how much bigger and more elaborate mums get, these always stay the same; 6) Marginal – Pop culture dictates current fashion and requires that it fit certain standards. If the judgment of people outside of Texas shows anything, it is that mums exist outside of popular culture and what popular culture dictates should be appropriate. For the people of Texas, however, that is one of their draws; 7) Aesthetic – Even though mums do not fit into what pop culture dictates, there are still certain guidelines that mums must adhere to avoid ridicule or judgment. Part of this probably has to do with the weight high school students place on assimilation, but whatever the reason, the community definitely places standards for what constitutes and “acceptable” homecoming mum; and 8) Ideological – Although homecoming mums and garters may seem like just flowers and ribbon, they represent much more to those who wear them than just the sixty dollars spent. Homecoming mums represent both high school football, commonly referred to as a “religion” in Texas. They also represent the importance of dating and relationships in high school life.

History

The Homecoming celebration as we know it today can be traced back a century to the University of Missouri. In 1911, the school’s athletic director, afraid the no one would attend their big game, invited the alumni to return to campus to participate in a pep rally, parades, and parties prior to the game. Homecoming corsages probably developed not too long after that. Chrysanthemums have long been regarded as the quintessential fall flower, so it makes sense that they would be incorporated into corsages for the quintessential fall sport. From there, they grew into flowers with a few ribbon streamers attached and the school’s letters, formed out of pipe cleaners, in the center of the flower.

As all things do in Texas, these simple mums grew larger and more ornate. Early mums were smaller, in part because they had no backing strong enough to hold the large ribbon halos found on modern mums. That changed around the year 1972 when George and Janice Barnes of Spring Garden Wholesale in Brownsville, Texas invented a large cardboard circle with a hole in the middle that was aptly dubbed a “mum back.” This innovation led to an explosion in the popularity of mums, as well as a change in their form. These cardboard disks allowed for ribbons to be stapled on a ring surrounding the flower, making mums even larger and allowed another outlet for individualization. Another change came with the introduction of the trinkets that now decorate mums. These trinkets, ranging from musical notes to mascots to sports balls to a plethora of other objects reflecting extracurricular activities, allow for an incredible amount of personalization. No longer did clients have to rely on just block-lettered streamers to display who they were, they could advertise all of their activities and interests. When glitter letter stickers were introduced, it was another huge advancement for the blossoming industry. No longer did florists have to take the time to hand letter each individual mum, and so the process became much less labor intensive, and therefore less time consuming. With less time being put into each mum, makers could make a lot more for any given homecoming celebration. Perhaps the most radical change began in the late 1970s. Up until this point, mums were made with fresh chrysanthemums. This meant that, like any corsage, they had to be made the night before the game and would fall apart soon after. Having to create an entire school’s worth of mums in one day led to florists staying up all night in order to fill orders. Kathi Thomas remembers helping her parents make these mums until she fell asleep in the boxes under the tables. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, however, silk mums began being used, occasionally at first, and then exclusively. This prompted three huge transitions: first, it meant that many, many more orders could be filled because they could be made weeks in advance; second, it took mums out of florists’ shops and into crafts stores; and third, the now permanent mementos began to serve a different function. Up until this point, mums were very similar to corsages. Once florists began using silk flowers, however, there was no longer the worry of the mum falling apart or the flower dying. This caused mums to take on a role as a more permanent keepsake to remind the owner of a date, a football experience, and for most, high school in general.  Many students not only save their mums, but also pin them to their walls.  For these students, but the time the graduate they might have an entire wall covered in flowers, ribbons, and glitter.

Regional Differences

One of the easiest observable regional differences in homecoming mums is simply their existence.  Earlier mums, the fresh flower and pipe cleaner letter generation, could be found all over the South.  A simple explanation for this limited distribution is that in the South, football is king.  It follows that the ultimate incarnation of school pride and football spirit would be found in places where football governed town activity. Kathi Thomas has done presentations on mums all over the Deep South.  She explains that while they exploded in Texas, they never really took off in other states, despite efforts of florists.  As mums grew and became larger and more ornate, it also makes sense that they would be even more embraced by a culture that admires bigger and better: the “everything’s bigger” attitude of Texas.  As Marin explains, “High school football is a really big deal in Texas, so, naturally, homecoming is a big deal too, and we go all out.”

Just how big of a deal mums and garters are, as well as how popular they are, is also a product of where you are.  The typical pattern is that schools in smaller, more rural cities put a lot more emphasis on homecoming and a lot more efforts into mums than do schools in large cities.  This seems to be a function of the importance any given town gives to high school football.  Although football is, without a doubt, the main sport across the state, there are some places where it has even more prominence.  Small towns that do not have many other options for Friday night entertainment or causes to rally around tend to be much more involved in the local high school’s football schedule.  In the fall, these towns know the players, the coach, the record, the upcoming games, fill the stadium for every home game, and travel for all the away games.  In towns like these, homecoming, and therefore mums, are going to be a lot more prevalent and important to status and assimilation than in a city like Dallas or Houston. In most places, seniors are distinguished by different colored flowers, Tommy Potter, from Sugar Land, observed that the seniors mums at his school were white, and underclassmen mums were red.  This seems to be a pattern that holds for the majority of the state, but is currently unobservable in the southernmost part of the state.  Marin also reported this phenomenon is the Dallas area, as did Joanie of Mark Knox Florist of Odessa. 

Depending on the school and location, there is also variation in when mums are worn.  In most places, students exchange with their dates in the morning on Friday, where them all day at school, to the homecoming game that night, and to the homecoming dance the next night.  There are exceptions to this, however.  Tommy from Sugar Land remembered some people wearing them the entire week before the homecoming game.  On the other end of the spectrum, many students at Memorial High School in McAllen wore them only to the dance, not to school or to the game.  However, across town at McAllen High School, the students fit in to the more typical pattern of school, game, and dance.

There is some variation between schools in patterns in who wears them.  According to Nathan Vance from Corpus Christi, the school required that all members of the homecoming court (king and queen nominees and the dukes and duchesses from all organizations) wear mums or garters.  Because it was a requirement, the school paid for them for all court members.  At many schools, the cheerleaders and drill team will have small mums on their hip, leg, or ankle, particularly during the game.  Kathi Thomas used this to her business’s advantage and would have school leaders like cheerleaders and drill team members buy their mums first.  By appealing to school leaders, trends would start for that year. Some districts extend the mum tradition to middle schools.  Students at Morris Middle School in McAllen petitioned to have their own homecoming game and dance that they could wear mums to.  Across town at Cathey Middle School, one Tuesday was dubbed “Mum Day” and students wore mums only to school.  The Plano school district, however, did not wear mums in middle school, and Marin remembers being jealous of her older sister’s.  At many middle schools, a few students will wear mums on the day of the high school’s homecoming game, particularly if the student has family members with close ties to the high school, such as a parent who is a teacher or faculty member.  The very spirited take this even further, purchasing Peewee mums for small children to wear to the football game.

Individual Variation

Students can easily personalize their mums and garters for themselves.  The first, easiest, and universal method of personalization is having your name and that of your date put on ribbons.  From there, trinkets and stickers are added to reflect who people are and what you do.  Companies like ACI Wholesale in Dallas sell cleats, megaphones, boots, mascots, balls, musical notes, graduation caps, class indicators, and garlands in various sizes and colors.  These can be selected from when ordering and incorporated into the mum or garter in various ways.  Some people will also add stuffed animals, usually either their school mascot or some sort of animal (teddy bear, Tweety Bird) that they really like. 

Many students will buy their mums and garters from florist shops that do a large mum business starting in about August.  Typically mums bought from professional florists are slightly more expensive, but they also tend to have more of a guarantee of good quality.  Other students will buy theirs from crafters who make an effort to market them more directly to students.  This can include teachers, family friends, people who come and sell them directly at the school, such as at Calallan High School in Corpus Christi, or even people who set up shop out of truck beds by the side of the road (such a truck was found in La Joya).  Still other students choose a more time consuming method and make them themselves.  This usually requires going to a floral wholesaler or craft store to purchase the mum, backing, ribbons, trinkets, letters, and garter.  Some stores sell pre-made backings with ribbons already attached.  This method can require a lot of time, particularly for the inexperienced, and a lot of money, particularly if you are only going to be making one.  McAllen Memorial High School students Gina and Cristina Rodriguez’s mother made theirs, reusing them from year to year and adding more embellishment as time passed.

The price for mums and garters can vary dramatically.  Nathan from Corpus remembers paying ten or twenty dollars for his garter from a woman in his school parking lot.  On the flip side of this, Marin remembers paying “no more that sixty dollars” for garters at a specialty mum shop in Dallas, although she has seen ones that cost up to one hundred and fifty dollars. Mums, which are bigger and therefore allow for more embellishment, vary even more.  Ryan Blodgett paid around thirty dollars for a single mum in Fort Worth; Robert paid forty-five dollars for a single mum in McAllen, Tommy’s double mum in Sugar Land cost close to ninety dollars, and in many places triple mums cost between one hundred sixty and two hundred dollars.  

Not everyone is content to simply have one double mum on their chest, however.  To this end, many mum shops, florists, and crafters make tiny mums for fingers, wristlet mums, mums to be worn on the hip, mums for legs and ankles, bows, sashes, door mums, and spirit sticks.  All of these many be worn with mums or individually.  Christopher Solon from Kingwood reported that his brother and their girlfriend, as well as some of their friends, chose simple corsages and completely eliminated mums and garters all together.  Cristina from McAllen did not receive a mum her senior year of high school, but instead received a basket of food tied with school spirited ribbons.  She remembers “girls complaining because they would have rather received a basket of food to their heavy mums.”

Some florists have made a departure from the original form of mum, the homecoming mum, and have branched out into baby mums.  These mums come in pink or light blue, have baby related trinkets, and ribbons that usually have the baby’s name, birthday, weight, and length.

Transmission

Homecoming mums and garters are almost entirely traditional in transmission.  This applies to both the florists who make them and then students who buy them.  Kathi Thomas learned to make them as a child in her parents’ shop.  Her mother was a florist and her father ran the nursery.  At this time, mums were still made using fresh mums and so the night before a homecoming celebration they would have to stay up to make them.  It was in this atmosphere that Kathi learned the skills that would eventually lend credence to the only partially complementary nickname “The Queen of Homecoming Mums.”  Pam Fullerton of Bloomers Flower Shop in Harlingen learned from Kathi at a mum show.  Most other florists learn during mum season from other florists they work with.

For students, most learn about the tradition in the month or two preceding their first homecoming experience, whether it is in middle school or high school.  If he or she has a parent who is from Texas, they often will find out from them.  Perhaps because date etiquette and floral accoutrements are traditionally a female domain, the mother is more often the vehicle for transmission then the father.  Sean Folk from McAllen explained, “for the most part it was the parents telling us kids what to do.”  Gina and Cristina Rodriguez agreed.  Other students, like Marin, found out from watching their older siblings go to their high school homecomings.  For those who did not have older siblings to learn from or parents who were familiarized with Texas traditions, peers took the role of teacher when it came to this school custom. 

Why Mums?

 Almost all students interviewed, no matter where they were from, focused on two main functions of homecoming mums: as artifacts of school spirit, and advertisements of your date.  According to Marin:

A mum is a really fun way to show school spirit. It can be customized completely to your taste, and it’s sentimental. I still have all of my mums from high school hanging on my bedroom wall because its nice to look at them and remember how much fun homecoming was that year. Also, its really nice knowing that someone put thought into making or choosing something that they knew you'd like.

Ryan agrees with her much more succinctly. “[They’re] a sort of declaration of affection…and [they] show school spirit.”  Cristina was a little more wary of mums’ real purpose.  “Homecoming was an opportunity for guys and girls to claim their partners, because in the Valley, well, people are very territorial over their dates.”  Sean Folk, also of McAllen, says he lacked school spirit, but the garter his date (the author of this paper, incidentally) got him reminded him to have school pride.  “It was also a reminder that I had a date in the very near future.”  Nathan was a little more specific in including homecoming, not just school pride in the function of mums: “It’s a combination of school spirit and the festiveness that revolves around the yearly welcoming back of alums from your school.  It’s also a sort of cute -- oh my God, did I really just use that word? – tradition for dates.”

Thoughts on the Tradition

Homecoming mums and garters have mixed reviews from both those who participate and those from outside of Texas.  For most people outside of the South, the first question people typically ask is “What is that thing?” followed closely by “Why?”  For those who have grown up with the tradition, it is not as obtrusively something to be questioned, however, some people began to wonder about the tradition when asked about it.  Sean Folk thinks that homecoming in general is “a bit out of whack.  It’s just nonsense to [him].”  Cristina remembers the tradition as being a “downer” for single people.  Gina questioned if the purpose of mums and garters was just to “show people you’re taken,” because “if you want to show school spirit then just go to the game.”  Ryan seemed a bit angrier in his thoughts on the tradition, explaining himself to be a “big fan of rampant consumerism when it’s over products that distract [him] from the doldrums of life,” but called mums and garters “garish tom foolery.”

There are some people, however, who are big fans of the tradition.  Nathan was one of these, although he “couldn’t really say why.”  Tommy also approved, mostly for the memories that it provided once homecoming was over and the garter was stuck to your wall, and as a way to tie people to their dates.  Marin’s approval stemmed from the same reasons.  Robert simply described the exchange as “pretty fun.”

Community Aesthetic

The community places a lot of importance on what homecoming mums and garters look like, and there are definite repercussion, usually in the form of mocking, for those that do not fit in to what is valued.  Since the introduction of glitter letters, mums that are hand lettered are typically looked down upon and not as socially acceptable.  There is also some judgment for those who make their own, or whose only mum comes from their parents.  Ryan explains that the people who made them for themselves were typically “fat girls who didn’t want to feel left out.”  He elaborated “the most annoying and loneliest girls always had the largest ones, even though no partner for them could be found.”  His hypothesis was that they “suckered their parents into buying them so they had one.”  It is easy to understand how, when students put so much value in the date aspect of homecoming mums, someone who received one from a parent might be looked down upon by their peers.  It is important to note, however, that if someone receives one from his or her parents in addition to a date, it often makes the one from a parent not just acceptable, but “cute.”

Even if a mum or garter is purchased for and exchanged with a date, there is still room for judgment.  Sean Folk was proud of the garter he got from his date, especially when he compared it to the one his best friend got.  “It was handpicked and poorly made.  It was sad.  Entertaining, though.”  A lot of the room for this judgment comes from the fact that Sean views mums as a “status symbol.”  Nathan said that if when he saw someone with a poorly made mum he felt a little sorry for them, because his automatic assumption was that the person did not have much money. 

Stories

Because homecoming is such an important part of the high school football season, most people have stories revolving around mums and garters.  Nathan Vance, of Corpus Christi, shared a story of the first time he encountered mums.

              I had to have been very young. My parents took me to high school football games since before I can remember. I suppose the first time I heard of them was when we attended the homecoming game at my mom's high school (she had gone back for a class reunion), and my dad bought her a mum and she bought my dad a garter. I think that I said something like “those look stupid,” then preceded to rip a bell off of my mom's mum. Keep in mind that I was very young!

Many mum stories involve girls with mums that were just too big for them or their dress.  Christopher Solon, from Kingwood, laughed about his first and only homecoming experience.

I had gone to see my girlfriend for her homecoming.  I had never been really school spirited, but she was.  God, was she ever!  She was the student body vice president, a super involved, over-achiever kind of person, you know the type.  Anyway, I didn’t have much experience with the whole flower thing, so she took care of everything for me.  She got her mum, my garter, everything.  When we were at the dance, she and I spent probably two hours betting on which girl would have her dress pulled down by her mum first.  She was so mad that I won, but then ended up just laughing about it because the girl whose dress it was wasn’t wearing a bra.

The short girls were always some of the most fun to watch on the day of homecoming.  Cristina Rodriguez remembered her friend’s date being “rather short” and having a “massive mum.  She ended up tripping on the ribbons and falling down the stairs. I felt so bad for her because everyone was   laughing, but it really was funny.”

Stories also exist about how many mums any one person has worn to homecoming in any given year.  There are many stories about girls with five, ten, or even fifteen mums, but Corey Ward from Corpus Christi knew a girl who wore twenty-three mums at one time. 

 They were mostly single mums, but still, it was ridiculous.  They covered her entire front and back, there were some on her legs, her arms like garters.  She had several on her hips and attached to her belt.  Her parents were divorced and she got one from each, plus one from her boyfriend, some   from her friends, her grandparents, school organizations, her friends, and I think a couple of guys surprised her with them.  I have no idea how she moved or walked.  She looked like a parade float or something.  It was probably one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my entire life.

Surprising girls with mums, although something many people look forward to, is not always a good idea.  Cristina knew a girl who received a surprise mum from a boy who had been interested in her for a long time.  When the girl received it, she simply put it in her locker and left it there for the rest of the week.  When she finally took it out, it had been “crushed, just like [the giver’s] hopes.”  Apparently, because of the connotations associated with mums and the idea that they are advertisements of affection, she did not want him to get the wrong impression, and instead completely ignored the gesture.

Even florists have stories about mums. Kathi Thomas of Kathi Thomas Designs related a situation that occurred while she was giving a mum show in Alabama.  She was showing a gigantic mum that was made using a pie plate as a backing.  She was showing it to be used as a door decoration, but said that she would never forget what happened. During her presentation, a woman raised her hand and asked, “Now, honey, do Ah put one this sahze on the hosses?”

Homecoming mums and garters are frowned upon and looked down by those outside of Texas and even most florists as being “ridiculous,” “gaudy,” and “pointless.”  For those who take part it in, however, it is an important and meaningful part of their high school experience.  It is not that we wear them in spite of their ridicululousness and gaudiness, we wear them because of it.  They “bring out your inner gypsy” and represent your school and dating, two huge parts of high school life.  They embody the things that Texas culture holds dear—high school football, big, ostentatious—and so, in a way, represent Texas itself.  In the words of Kathi Thomas, they are “football spirit brought to solid state.”