The long held stereotype goes that everything is bigger in Texas: louder, brasher, imposing in its vastness. While stale assumptions about places typically don’t ring true, it’s difficult to ignore the larger-than-life qualities of a ritual undertaken at high schools across the state each fall–homecoming mums.
Sure, everywhere in the country celebrates homecoming with pom-pom waving, face painting, and a giddy queen crowned at the end of the night. Homecoming mums, though, are a distinctly Texan tradition. The importance of wearing this version of an outlandish boutonniere to homecoming is so woven into the psyche of Texas girls that even if a family leaves the state, daughters will order mums to be shipped to their new addresses. The elaborate tradition is a pageantry pit stop somewhere between four-year-olds in full eye makeup competing in talent shows and the eventual reckoning of bridezillas.
Historically, mums were fashioned by mothers, who learned how to make the contraptions from scratch or simply incorporated more detail onto store-bought versions. Today, mums are far more complicated, with home-based companies like Rebecca Hayes’ outfit Peace, Love and Mums meeting the demand for over-the-top, blinged-out creations.
Ascending the stairs inside Peace, Love and Mums headquarters (read: Hayes’ house), past racks and racks dripping with half-finished mums, I was soon deep in a closet covered wall-to-wall in spools of ribbon and trinkets, getting the run down on the dos and don’ts of homecoming mum protocol.
It’s been a long time since actual chrysanthemums or other flowers were used, and today the centerpieces of the jangly, stuffed animal-covered creations are silk flowers known either as a single (one mum), a double (two mums), or a triple (three mums). At Peace, Love and Mums, the packages have names ripe with teenybopper appeal, from the “sassy” variation to “YOLO super glam.”
While some younger students arrive with a “go big or go home” mindset as freshmen, it’s generally considered poor form to get a triple mum in the first year. (“You have to have something to build to, you know?” an employee explains.) School colors are the expected spectrum for underclassmen, with silver the hue of choice for most junior mums and gold reserved for seniors.
“Oh, lord,” exclaims a woman busily hot gluing gold football trinkets to a piece of gingham ribbon. “This one right here deserves the jackass package!”
The women flash knowing glances and titter into their hands. “We really get to know these kids well because we do their homecoming mums year after year,” Hayes says in a forced whisper. “And you hear…things from the kids or their moms. You hear that they boy has been cheating on his girlfriend or isn’t a nice guy. We’ve never done it, but we started jokingly saying that we’d put a little sticker of a donkey in the back of the mum for the boys who were being…”
She makes a hee-haw noise. “That way, they know that we know.”
Pretty much nothing is off limits for attaching to homecoming mums, including feather boas, beads, braided ribbons, bells, lights, dressed up bears, and three-dimensional lettering. The mums (and their male equivalent, garters, worn on the arm) equally reflect the individual’s hobbies—from football to flute and everything in-between—and how much they want to impress their peers. When done up to the nines, mums can weigh 10 pounds or more. At Peace, Love and Mums, a single mum averages about $200. Some girls purchase mums that cost upwards of $600.
The extraordinary intricacy of the Texas homecoming mum ritual isn’t just limited to the mum or garter itself, though. Due to the cumbersome, extremely heavy nature of mums today, it’s almost impossible for girls to wear them as pins like in the past—lest their entire neckline droop to their knees. Instead, they are most often worn around the neck like a massive, feather-and-sequin covered bolo tie.
At some schools, though, homecoming overalls are just as much a part of the tradition as the mum itself. Decorated with glittery, rah-rah patches and scripted lettering, homecoming overalls—and occasionally, matching jean jackets—are dense enough to support the weight of a pinned homecoming mum. In these cases, homecoming mums not only require investment in the flower itself, but in an entire accompanying outfit, which can run upwards of $250. The overalls are worn on the day of the mum exchange and to the game that evening.
Then, there’s the process of a boy asking a girl to go to homecoming. Boys have been known to jump through elaborate—often costumed—hoops to convince a girl to go with them, from renting out entire movie theaters to running into the football stadium stands, bouquet of flowers in hand. This year, one varsity swimmer bought giant inflatable ducks, crept into his prospective date’s house and floated in her pool with a sign that read, “I would be a ‘lucky duck’ if you go to homecoming with me.” The instance of asks happening in a reverse fashion—female to male—are so rare they’re almost unheard of.
What about boys and girls who don’t have dates? When I bring this up with Hayes and her four assistants, they all look at me as if I’d issued a death sentence.
“Well, it’s really sad. The girl’s mom usually buys one for her,” Hayes explains patiently. “Then, some girls go stag together in a group—they rent a limo or something.”
When it comes to the annual fall mumming, there’s a noticeable porousness in the line between child and parent, adult and teenager. Some mothers become overzealous stage moms, nudging their offspring’s mum over the line from celebratory centerpiece to gaudy upchuck of excess.
“So many times, it’s the mothers that really push things over the edge,” says Rachel Brummett, a mum-maker at the Katy, Texas-based business, Texas Homecoming Mums. “I had a mom tell me one time that she wanted the mum so big and lit up that the airplanes could see her daughter.”
Not everyone, of course, is so thrilled about the ballooning of the homecoming mum tradition. A number of parochial schools in both the Houston and Dallas area have done away with the practice over concerns that the tradition is more distraction than critical coming-of-age ritual.
And in the Dallas suburb of Frisco this year, a student-led campaign for mums to be replaced with a homecoming drive for charity was met with mixed feelings from students and parents alike. An editorial from the Dallas Morning-News, however, praised the effort while simultaneously lambasting the perceived tackiness of homecoming mums. “’Mum,’ we know, is actually a Texas code word for monstrosity,” the paper notes. “Is there a better way to live up to the worst stereotypes of the ostentatious Texan?”
Alternatives do exist for homecoming attendees who can’t, or don’t care to, pay hundreds of dollars for their mum. Michelle Coats, owner of Texas Homecoming Mums, focuses on keeping items affordable and deeply personalized rather than over-the-top. Coats tries to keep mum prices under $100 even for the most intricate braids-and-baubles creations. She also offers “refurbished” mums at a reduced price, and a buy-back mum “recycling” program to help offset costs for those struggling to pay for the expensive ritual.
“I’m always on the lookout at thrift stores and what not. I don’t use the pricey wholesale places like in Dallas. I just really keep an eye out,” she explains, fiddling with a Houston Astros toy she caught at a game and then incorporated into a mum. “For example, Beanie Baby bears are everywhere and, I think, the best bears for putting on mums. You can just cut off their head and use it, or use the whole body. They’re also much less expensive than the little stiff bears most people use.”
One of Coats’ most unique commissions was for a couple that enjoyed hunting. The boy’s garter had a camouflage theme, while the girl’s woodsy-hued mum was fashioned out of evergreen fabric. A cork letter “K” (for Katelin) and an “L” (for Larry) anchored the flower’s sides, with a cascade of ribbons and strips of burlap raining down in waves. Fishing bobber, trout, and white tail deer stickers decorated the ribbons, with glittery leaves peppered throughout.
“I really do it to see just how excited the kids are when they get their mums,” she says.
There is something special about receiving a homecoming mum. Like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike. Similar to getting a homemade Christmas card or a hand-knitted scarf, the homespun flamboyance of the mum tradition can be sweetly intimate. When I was leaving the ranch home where Coats displayed her wares for me, she stopped me in my tracks.
“Here’s the mum I made for you!” she declared proudly, hoisting it up for me to examine.
The mum had royal blue and silver ribbons, tiny shamrock stickers nestled in the bends of fabric, and a plaster clip art-style “check out my blog!” trinket as a centerpiece. I felt strange sense of pride in having my own personalized creation.
If anyone back home asks about the hyper-stylized first prize ribbon hanging above my desk, I’ll just tell them it’s a Texas thing.