Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Depending on where you live, fall’s arrival beckons a certain set of traditions. Light-jacket wearing, football watching, apple picking, leaf raking, pumpkin everything-ing. And if you live in Texas, one of those traditions is likely homecoming-mum making.
The first part of that should have some resonance — homecoming, if you’ll conjure those early teen memories, is like prom but in the fall, and is usually tied to the football (or basketball) team’s return to the home field after a long string of away games. Sometimes there’s a parade; there’s almost always a dance.
Unlike most proms, homecoming dances usually invite all grade levels to participate. This means, for many students, it’s their first time dabbling in asking a date and picking out a dress or suit (enjoy that small hell for the next four years, suckers!). Guys buy their date a corsage, which, if he’s a good listener, matches her dress, as does his tie. Then everyone goes to the house of their friend with the nicest backyard for an hour’s worth of picture taking and parental ogling.
In Texas, appropriately exhibiting its knack for making things bigger, mums take on the symbolism of the typical corsage exchange, and take up the space of about 20 of them.
At its most basic, a homecoming mum is a flower (a chrysanthemum) attached to some kind of backing, with oodles of ribbons pouring down. It’s meant to be pinned to and worn on the body, but nowadays, some of the more ornate creations are so heavy they must be worn around the neck. Guys typically order one for their dates, and girls order one for the guys too — usually a bit smaller and worn on their arm. Today the arrangements often involve more than just a few decorative ribbons, incorporating customized plastic figurines, stuffed animals, bells, and even LED lights, but they come from humble beginnings.
While there’s some debate about who deserves the title, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recognizes the University of Missouri as the birthplace of homecoming. In 1911, athletic director Chester Brewer encouraged alumni to “come home” to inaugurate the new location of the school’s football field, and incentivized attendance by planning parades and other celebrations. It worked — over 10,000 alumni and fans attended the game.
How exactly the mum component of homecoming began isn’t clear, but historically it was common for women to wear a corsage to commemorate formal occasions. The word actually comes from the Old French word cors, meaning body, and evolved to become synonymous with bodice, referencing the part of a woman’s dress that covered the torso. Women would tuck flowers into the top of their bodice, called a bouquet du corsage, which was eventually shortened to just corsage. And since its introduction to the US in the 1700s, the chrysanthemum has become quite popular, and today remains the most commonly grown pot plant. It’s also one of the longest lasting of all cut flowers, making it a sensible choice for a corsage flower.
Not long after Mizzou’s inaugural homecoming, the tradition gained popularity across the nation, and Texas boys began giving their dates mums as a corsage. They’ve only gotten bigger since — literally.
In the ’70s and ’80s, homecoming mums were made from real chrysanthemums, but nowadays they’re synthetic creations known as silk flowers — a name leftover from their invention: They’re no longer made from silk, either. Kathy Elswick, who’s lived in Texas for 42 years, remembers the real flowers in her Westwood High School mum. “Back then, you’d have ’em on for an hour or two before they’d just totally dismantle. You couldn’t put much in the flower, because that just made it fall apart more.” She and the rest of the cheerleaders and drill team members made 50 to 60 mums in their living rooms to sell to the rest of the school as a fundraiser for the teams. Now, Elswick is in charge of the Mum Room at Westlake High School in Austin, where she and her mum moms make about 1,200 mums every year.
Mums are an institution at Westlake. The program is run through the PTO, they operate out of a physical classroom (albeit a small one) at the school, and all their profits go straight back to the school. Students can choose between three different sizes: the single (one flower), the double (a flower on top of another flower), and the supersize, which is one nine-and-a-half-inch flower. Once in its hat, the part where the flower sits, the supersize comes to about 15 inches wide. The first two options, costing $50 and $90 respectively, are only somewhat customizable, but the supersize, $150, is totally personalized. The garters, aka the boy mums, cost $25 and are worn like an arm band.
Elswick and her team spend most of the year making the base part of the single mums, their most popular order. “We have a couple months that we take off for sanity reasons,” she says, laughing. “We tried to figure out how many hours we spent doing the mums, but it was impossible.” But all that work means extra cash for the school. If everyone bought the least expensive option, excluding the arm band, that’s $60,000 in revenue right there.
Even though the finished mums are only worn for one day, all that work is justified through years of tradition and the students’ perennial excitement. Grace Carpenter, a senior at Westlake, told me they’re a pretty big deal compared to some other high schools in the area.
“I grew up hoping to get a mum,” says Carpenter. But then, one is never enough. “It’s kind of a thing to have as many mums as possible,” she says. School-sponsored teams, parents, or siblings might gift one in addition to your date. She expects to have nine by the end of this year.
At Westlake, homecoming is Sadie Hawkins style, so girls are expected to ask guys to be their date, but not to the dance — to the football game. “Not a lot of people actually go to the dance anymore,” says Carpenter, choosing to attend the game as an item and then maybe grab dinner on Saturday night instead.
While the game represents the true reason for the season, wearing the mums to school beforehand seems like the most important part of the tradition for the students I talked to. This makes sense, considering a high school’s hallways offer the most visible and public display, and mums, with all their flashy ornamentation, are meant to be seen. Some schools, like Carroll High, have stopped allowing students to wear them, citing their “distracting” nature. “You’ve got all the bells and whistles that really make a lot of noise,” says Traci Bass, the administration secretary, noting that’s been the case for at least 10 years now. But Westlake allows it, as long as students tape up the bells during class. But in those spare minutes in the hallways in between classes? Mum bells are jangling, ribbons are dangling, and LED lights are blinking.
“It’s kind of a big deal to show up to school that day with a mum hanging from your backpack with your name and your date’s name on it,” says Carpenter. While she and her date haven’t been together long, they have a lot of classes together this year, and she thought asking him would be a good way to get to know him better.
Students that don’t have dates can still participate in the mum tradition, though — it’s not taboo to buy yourself a mum, and sometimes friends will even give them to each other. Halley Despain, a junior at Little Elm High School, moved to Texas right before her freshman year, so she was totally confused by all the mum talk that started to bubble up in the fall. Her friend Tara, whom she’d only known for a couple weeks, offered to make her one. “If I wouldn’t have had one, I would have felt left out,” says Despain.
For her sophomore year, Despain went a little bigger and commissioned a mum that had a football helmet and cheerleader on it. This year, she’s planning to add on to that one, a popular choice at Little Elm. By senior year, which both Despain and Carpenter agree is the year to go full out, the mums can be quite large and elaborate.
Despain says her classmates, on average, spend around $150 for a pretty basic mum, but costs can vary drastically in different parts of the state and as the students get older. Cecilia Valudos, who co-owns C&C Floral Events in Colleyville, Texas, says that she works within her customers’ budgets. “I’m very very sensitive to the need that kids… not everyone can afford certain things,” she says, noting that prices for custom mums can run anywhere from $50 all the way to $800. “We try to deter from anything over that.”
Elswick echoed the notion that the practice has gotten out of control in certain areas. “There are some schools in Dallas that are just over the top. Their mums are huge. They’re like the size of a coffee table. People spend thousands of dollars on those mums. Thousands. And it’s crazy. Those big huge ones? They can’t do anything in them. They couldn’t even wear them to the football game. There wouldn’t be enough room in the stands,” says Elswick. “In some areas, it’s gotten so over the top, it’s taken away the beauty from it.”
However, no matter how unruly and gaudy mums become, the real beauty in the tradition lies in the way that it rallies and unites local communities across the state — even supports them economically.
“This little business is basically a family-owned business from the top down,” says Valudos. “You have people on the production, those are all family-owned businesses. So it does support a lot of Texans; it supports a lot of families.” While some people would balk at the idea of such extravagant spending on an ephemeral item like a mum, Valudos points out it’s no different than anything else; it’s just a matter of perspective. “You’re always gonna have the people that think this costs too much money, but you know, a lot of people spend a lot of money at Starbucks, they spend a lot of money on the cars they give their kids, they spend a lot of money on prom, they spend a lot of money on the buses kids take to dances and stuff,” she says.
At Westlake, parents don’t mind spending the money because they know it’s going right back into the school, and some even happily spend a little extra. Elswick says, “I might get a parent who calls me and says, ‘Hey, we’ve ordered two mums, but I only need one. Can you find a student of need that would like a mum?’ That just makes me feel great. They just want to donate the money, because they know it’s going to a good cause, but they also want to see someone who would like to have one, have one.” She says she has a handful of orders like that for this year.
After Harvey, some local groups like Crossroads Community Church encouraged students to donate the money they would have spent on a mum to relief efforts to help those affected return to normalcy. But for others, mums are a part of that normalcy. Ashley Reel, a freshman at Oak Ridge High School, not only collected over 2,000 homecoming dresses for girls whose families were affected by the storm, but together with her mother and other volunteers made over 1,100 mums to distribute with the dresses as well. Some local shops have pledged to donate a portion of their profits as well.
Despite the financial damage Harvey caused to individual families and the Houston economy in general, mum orders continue to pour in. Debbie Wright, the owner of Enchanted Florist in Pasadena, which is just outside Houston and services schools there, says she actually hasn’t noticed a decrease in the number of orders she’s received so far this fall, further evidencing how important this tradition is to the community.
Even though her youngest is a senior this year and she’ll be officially handing the torch to another mom, Elswick plans to help out with the mum room next year just because she enjoys it. “It’s the little ‘thank yous’ and the ‘oh my goshes,’ the excitement from the kids when they see what they’ve gotten. It makes you feel good, and lets you know that what you’ve done has made someone else happy.”
Though the tradition’s roots are inherently bound to athletics, it’s not just the football players and cheerleaders that participate. While some students get more into it than others, it unifies more than it excludes. Sure, says Carpenter, the “popular” kids at Westlake may get more into mums than others — it is, after, a status symbol that can signal the wearer has the social capital to get a date, and the financial capital to buy a showy mum — but the tradition has made homecoming so much more than a sports thing. “A lot of my friends are into anime, and they get mums,” says Carpenter.
As Despain put it, “Prom is just for juniors and seniors, but homecoming is for everyone.”