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From the series "Mum" (Nancy Newberry)

Go Big Or Go Homecoming: Supersized Corsages

by Claire O'Neill
Sep 6, 2013

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Claire O'Neill

Somewhere in my parents' house, I think I still have a corsage from some dance in high school. A little rose on a sparkly elastic band, which I wore awkwardly around my wrist. You know the drill.

In Texas, though, they have a different drill. Photographer Nancy Newberry recalls her first "mum" — short for chrysanthemum — which her mom made for her in high school. The uniquely Texan homecoming tradition of sporting an "explosion of a corsage," as Newberry describes it, goes back decades.

Traditionally, a girl receives a mum from her boyfriend or loved one — be it Mom or a friend. Boys wear them, too, but with a different name of course ("garters") and a different placement (around the arm).

There are unspoken rules, too. It would be gauche, for example, for a freshman to wear a mum as large as a senior's. The mum's size must correlate to one's seniority in school. Colors and additional embellishments are also reserved for upperclassmen.

So the mum continues to blossom and grow over a four-year period — but also, Newberry says, mums have gotten bigger in general since she was in high school. "Bigger is better, I guess," she says on the phone.

Newberry sees it as a fun way to connect with her past and with teenagers now. Although my mind immediately goes to these amazing portraits by Phyllis Galembo — showing the sartorial rituals of masquerade in Nigeria.

Which isn't a far stretch to Newberry, who can get kind of academic about the project, too. She writes via email: "I am really interested in the mums as ritual objects, how they help shape personal identity and how they become a part of the unique landscape and language of a place."

But let's get real. Who cares about academics in high school?

What's the homecoming tradition in your town? If you live in Texas, put your photo in the comments!

Newberry's work will be on display in San Antonio this month, San Francisco in October and Chicago in November.

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