Human Flower Project
Homecoming Mum: A Riot of Conformity
How to stick out, fit in, and drop $75 for the big game.
JV cheerleader Amani Dorn sold programs
at Lake Travis (TX) High School
Homecoming football game, 2002
Photo: Bill Bishop
Lake Travis High School JV cheerleader Amani Dorn looks down at her chest, powerless to explain what’s there. “I guess it’s based on the whole corsage thing.”
She’s wearing a silk bloom the size of a cauliflower, nestled in spangles and rigged with a fake butterfly. Two pounds of trinkets hang from red and silver ribbons down to her bare calves. This is no corsage. It’s a dead grouse crossed with a bottle rocket, a Texas homecoming mum.
Depending on your feeling for the boys-will-be-hideous sport of football—chin straps, ice packs and necks thick as thighs—the homecoming mum is either the mightiest incursion or the ghastliest concession girls have made, our turn to shine and groan. At the Lake Travis High School Homecoming last month just about all girls over age 12 and under 25 arrived with chestwear. Outside the stadium one fan, obviously a mum-novice, stepped cautiously, steadying herself on a boy’s arm and lifting her gush of ribbons to keep from tripping.
“You kind of get to show off,” said Lake Travis sophomore Ashton Verrengia, standing with an armload of programs by the main gate. Her mum sagged from two oversized pins, loaded with a panda bear, globular heart, cut-out of the state of Texas, even a car, since “I’m going to be driving this year.”
Kira Miles, senior,
with black and white mum
Permian High School homecoming
Odessa, Texas, 2003
Photo: Julie Ardery
Up in the stands, blonde and bronzed April Fields, also a sophomore, sported two gigantic mums, one a gift from her date, Brett Jennings, the other from friend Clayton Amacker, in the running that night for Homecoming King. Both her silk flowers bore Batman insignia because, she explained, “The theme is superheroes for homecoming.” April said “creativity” keeps driving the mum tradition to new extremes; to prove it, her two mums were studded with more symbols and cryptic allusions than a Renaissance altarpiece: “O” and “Pushpop” in silver lettering, a Batman yoyo and a soccer ball charm.
On Wednesday before the Lake Travis homecoming game, Glenda Morris, floral designer of the H.E. B. at Bee Caves Rd. and Hwy. 71, sounded edgy. “We’re booked solid. We can’t take any more orders.” Christy Cedeno, a clerk at the nearby Randall’s, said her floral department began preparing for mum season back in July. “We make them all summer long,” customizing each flower as orders flow in. Cedeno said her store had made over 150 silk mums for Lake Travis homecoming alone. Donna Parker, owner of Flowers by Nancy, Too in Lakeway, estimated she would fill 100 mum orders by game day, and “this year, we’ve added lights.”
Those raised in milquetoast states like Ohio or New York may think a homecoming mum is one white flower with a bow of your school colors and—oh, wow—a pipecleaner initial. Native Kansan Becky Swem, *with* flower wholesale house Pike’s Peak of Austin, remembers waiting on her first Texas high school cheerleader years ago, “I kept trying to convince her to get something else. She’s standing there in her little uniform and looking at me like I’m crazy. And I’m thinking, ‘Why does she want this huge mum and all this crap hanging off of it?’ ”
Why, indeed? Even old hands at mum-making, like designer Tom Blomquist of Bill Doran wholesale, aren’t sure, but he declares, “This is a Texas phenomenon. Nowhere else in the country is the football mum business like it is here in Texas.” As with most Lone Star excesses, the trail seems to lead toward College Station. Members of the Aggie corps used to buy their dates white chrysanthemums for every home game. Not to be outdone, the UT fans started wearing flowers, too, for the big Thanksgiving Day contest against arch rival A&M.
Dorothy Langston, a third generation Austin florist, sold fresh mums for her grandfather Joseph Brown’s shop back in the 1950s, toting “200, 300 football mums already dressed, down to UT stadium.” Langston says these corsages, made with fresh flowers, just had a ribbon and one long streamer. In 1959, her senior year of high school, Dorothy remembers a tiny football and a cowbell had been added to her homecoming mum. “It didn’t have all these other things, the helmets and the animals,” much less today’s riot of silver chains, music boxes, cowboy hats and wishbones. This year Bastrop Florist, for example, offers customers a menu of 118 gew-gaws. “All high school students want to conform at some level,” Donna Parker explains. “They want it to be just like everybody else’s but then they want it to be different. So we specialize in ‘just like everybody else’s but different.’ ”
Prices? Renee Dahl of A Bed of Roses, bracing for Bowie and Crockett high schools’ homecomings, says, “the basic Plain Jane starts at $16.95, but the average mum goes for around $35 to $50, and on up.” On up where? Well, figure you’re mixing football mania, peer pressure and Texas ostentation with teen sex hormones and a Chinese labor force. “It became a competition,” Blomquist says. “Who had the best, the most unusual, the fanciest? The sky’s the limit.”
Mother/Daughter florists Wanda and Micki Smith of Odesssa, TX
show mums they’ve made for local high schools rivals
Permian (black) and Odessa (red)
Photo: Julie Ardery
Sandy Smith, a designer at Bastrop Florist, said that in football-dazzled Abilene, she once assembled a maxi-mum reaching over the shoulder and around the waist, for $275. Aya Linenberger Matocha, owner of Bastrop Florist, reported that, “A lot of people come in and buy four and five—they’ve got that many kids in their family—and walk out of here going, ‘We’ll eat cold cuts the rest of the week.”’
The unofficial Queen Mum of Texas is Kathi Thomas, a wedding consultant who gives football mum demonstrations all over the country. In the years before silk flowers, she worked “literally all night the three or four nights before homecoming” to prepare 1000 fresh mums for Sam Houston State’s game. Now, “it’s rare to even see a fresh mum anymore.” Once upon a time, a girl’s corsage would shatter poetically on the way home from the dance. But poetry isn’t what today’s customers want. The new homecoming mum is built to last, a trophy of one’s high school years to hang on the bedroom wall. “The up side,” Thomas says, “is you can work far in advance. The down side is that it’s taking (mum business) out of the florists’ hands and into the craft stores.”
Hobby Lobby on Manchaca carries an aisle of mum trinkets and custom ribbons for 30 area schools. All you need is a stapler and a glue gun. Austin florist Ken Freytag calls the football mum, “a dwindling tradition” at least in larger cities. “In small towns it seems to still be thriving. Probably 15 years ago I would sell 400 to 500 mums for Anderson High School’s homecoming, and now we may sell 40.”
The megamum’s heyday, Kathi Thomas says, was the 1970s: “I student-taught at Crockett in ‘76 and there it was a prestige thing about how many mums you could get. Girls would have six, seven, eight on.” Around 1980, “We got very concerned about everyone’s ego.” Thomas cited and blasted the PC line: “ ‘Everybody doesn’t get ‘em so you can only wear one, because that’s more fair.’ Give me a break!”
Even tougher on the mum custom, Thomas says, was the passage in 1983 of House Bill 72, Ross Perot’s “no pass-no play” school reform. “It cut out all frivolity” in the school day and that meant “all of a sudden, you couldn’t deliver the homecoming mums to school.” Dorothy Langston agrees: “The schools said it caused too much disruption in the classroom because they would be jingling the cowbells every time the girls moved. So slowly it just faded out, about five or six years ago.”
But Bastrop Florist, Lake Travis High School homecoming and the crush of customers at Hobby Lobby tell a different story. The Tuesday before homecoming, Bastrop Florist was clogged with shoppers for both mums and garters (a mum-on-the-arm tastefully trinketed “for him”). Jeanette Vowell of Hobby Lobby says the mum custom has seeped from the high schools down to the junior highs and middle schools, even “to pewee football teams.” Fans are making their own chestgear with abandon.
Alanna Henry, Class of 2001, and custom mum
Lake Travis High School homecoming, 2002
Photo: Bill Bishop
Alanna Henry from the LTHS Class of 2001 was all smiles attending the game with friend Sarah Smith, wearing a mum emblazoned—redundantly—with a smiling photo of Sarah and herself. “It means more when they’re not store bought, ” Stacey Dickerson insisted. Her homecoming corsage was a wilting canna leaf and sprig of lantana harvested from friend and fellow sophomore Jenna Hernandez’s yard.
Once the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah accessory of boy/girl dating, the mum has morphed. Designing, giving and getting are as complex as the rest of adolescent life circa 2002. Sharnisha Aldridge, a Bastrop 7th grader, is making her own first mum emblazoned in glitter with the names and jersey numbers of her brother, a player on the Bastrop football team, and her cousin Donovohn Henderson, who used to play for Bastrop but was killed last summer. Ashton Verrengia’s mum was made by “my ex-boyfriend’s mother. We’re still good friends.” Stacey’s backyard corsage incorporated the pin of another friend, a band member, “It’s a collaboration of, like, everybody.”
A corsage signifies, “Tonight, I am somebody.” But how do you signify “I’m a member of the Lake Travis drill team about to get my driver’s license and a soccer player on good terms with my ex”? To say all that is going to take a Texas mum and the chutzpah to pin it on.
(This story originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, October 2002)