Monday, January 23, 2012

Senior cords–Unique to Indiana?

cordscopyThe back of a Speedway (Ind.) High School senior’s cords, class of 1962.
Pegged pants were in fashion back in the late 1950s, when I was in junior high school and the first few years of high school.
No purchase of jeans or slacks at Clifford’s clothing store on the courthouse square in Delphi, Ind., was complete unless they were turned over to the store seamstress, Lurine Rider, to have the legs tapered below the knee. The idea was to get the cuff so tight you could barely get your foot through it. In some cases, guys had zippers installed in the inseams.
That got me to thinking about senior cords – the yellow corduroy pants and skirts worn by high school seniors in those days. As nearly as I can tell, senior cords have gone in and out of fashion in Indiana high schools for the better part of the 20th century. The practice in earlier years was to decorate them with images and words, sometimes kinda racy and lewd.
By the time I became a senior (1963-63 school year), the principal had banned graffiti on senior cords in school, so we were obliged to wear plain yellow cords to show our upperclassman status. Some of my peers, however, had a set of cords painted for wear to ball games and other extracurricular events.
Searching for images of senior cords with Google, I find only pictures from Indiana. Since Delphi is less than 20 miles from Purdue University, where the concept of yellow senior cords is believed to have arisen (Purdue’s colors are black and gold), it seems likely that senior cords may be unique to Indiana.
What the Purdue Reamer Club says about the origin of Boilermaker senior cords:
In the fall of 1904, two seniors noticed a sample of corduroy in the window of Taylor and Steffen’s and decided to have a pair of trousers made out of it. Other seniors liked them so much that the next year they were adopted as the official garb of the senior class. Only the seniors were allowed to wear them, and they made sure that underclassmen did not take over this fashion. Along with the cords, the seniors also wore derbies and carried bamboo canes. Freshmen often tried to steal these items and if they succeeded they defaced them. The freshmen, however, did give them back to the seniors by the first football game, where the seniors marched with them in the senior parade. During the first game, the seniors would throw their derbies after the first touchdown or at the end of the game if no touchdowns were scored.
Senior Cords have come and gone over the years. Recently they have found their way back into the more common traditions of Purdue University. In the fall of 1999, approximately 12 student organizations have begun to bring back Senior Cords, which they wear to the home football games. As was tradition, cords are to be decorated with marker or paint. They are marked with the student’s major and graduation date as well as any student organizations one has been involved with. Many seniors use various patches to cover the cords and include depictions of their favorite Purdue icons.
I thought about writing a more comprehensive piece about senior cords, but discovered that Deborah Curtis Drummy beat me to it with this splendid overview she wrote for the Vigo County Historical Society in Terre Haute:
The year is 1962, the place the hallowed halls of Garfield High School.  The girls are wearing raccoon-collared coats, Liz Taylor and Ben Casey blouses; the boys wear pegged pants, white socks and Cords-adletter jackets.
The fads will last a few seasons, as fashions generally do.  But take a look through that year’s “Benedictus,” Garfield’s yearbook, and you’ll see a more extreme fashion which reigned as tradition in area schools for at least 20 years; “Senior cords continue to be the accepted fad for the ‘big wheels,’ the seniors, as they proudly don brightly-painted senior cords, symbols of their arrival at senior status.
The year 1963 “Scarabaeus,” Gerstmeyer High School’s yearbook, offers a similar observation:  “No one knows exactly when or where the idea of senior cords began, but . . the fad soon took hold at Gerstmeyer.”
A search through the 1950s and 1960s yearbooks at the Vigo County Public Library show evidence of the tradition at most other area schools, including Wiley High School, West Terre Haute High School, West Vigo High School, State Laboratory High School, Blackhawk High School, and for one year at least, Terre Haute South Vigo High School.
The 1972 South Vigo cords in the collection at the museum were donated by Gregg Reynolds.  The cords appear to be the carryover of a long-held (1951-1971) tradition of Garfield senior class presidents passing on cords painted with each president’s name and year.  Reynolds, who was sophomore and junior class president at Garfield during that school’s last two years, became president of South Vigo’s first senior class.  His senior cords seem to be a last hurrah to Garfield tradition.
Several accounts also have been made of seniors at Purdue University wearing painted cords, and there is reason to speculate, given the tendency of high schoolers to imitate their college elders, that the tradition may have trickled down to this area via Purdue.
Talks with baby boomers from various parts of the country–Nebraska, Colorado, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island–suggest that the tradition may have been very Midwestern, perhaps even centered mostly in Indiana.
What exactly were painted cords, and what were the traditions surrounding them?
Painted cords were brightly painted corduroy skirts and trousers worn by senior high school students.  Senior cords were yellow as a rule and were worn only by seniors.
Underclassmen wore cords of their own colors:  freshmen wore green, sophomores pink or red, and juniors light blue.  Underclassmen were not allowed to paint their cords, and anyone bold enough to show up at school breading that rule faced the real possibility of having their garment forcibly removed and raised on the school flagpole.
Seniors could wear their cords plain or decorated.  The decorations can best be described as personalized graffiti.  Popular comic book heroes of the day–Denise the Menace, Daffy Duck, Alfred E. Neuman, Snoopy–showed their bright faces from the seats of skirts and trousers.
Other graffiti represented personal data–nicknames, boyfriends, girlfriends–and school activities, both academic and extra-curricular; chemistry flasks, thespian masks, sports symbols, National Honor Society emblems or music symbols.  School identification and status appeared on every example seen:  graduation year, school name, mascot, school colors.
Humor inevitably crept into the artwork, some it bordering on the objectionable.  The girls tended toward the tame, with skunks painted across the seat of their skirts or “one-hour parking only.”
The boys tended to test the limits of good taste a little more rigorously. At my school one boy wore a pair of 1966 trousers with the words “Spanish Fly” painted across the crotch, and another wore a pair of 1967 trousers with the words “Slippery When Wet” painted down the front of one leg.  Rumor said both those seniors had to get dean approval before wearing the cords in school, which they apparently received.
The quality of artwork on the painted cords varied tremendously, ranging from crudely hand-lettered names done all in black, to professional quality designs in a rainbow of colors.
Evelyn Roberts, a teacher in Indiana schools during the cord years, remembers students coming to her house and paying a token $3 to $5 for her artistic renderings.  She recalls painting class rings, mascots, club emblems and symbols representing class trips, such as cherry blossoms to indicate a trip to Washington, D.C.
The most frequently repeated sentiments are the wistful regrets of those who failed to save their painted cords.  Imagine the quantity of folk art torn into rags and used to wash the family car!
Another frequently expressed wish made by women was that they could still fit into those size 8 skirt waistbands.  One 1959 Wiley grad very proudly wore her cords to her 25th class reunion in 1984, observing that only a few others managed to do the same.
So what led to the demise of such a colorful and long-held custom?  It’s a question posed to many of the people who shared their memories of painted cords.
The answers have been similar:  “It got old.”  “They just got tired of it.”  “Something new must have come along.”
Something new certainly came along, and the “something” was a whole new way of looking at the world.  The year 1968 seems to have been the turning point–the year of assassinations, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Democratic convention in Chicago, women’s liberation, flower power, our brothers’ backyard war games being played for real in distant jungles for reasons they didn’t even understand.
At any rate, the tradition of senior cords came and went in the Wabash Valley, and just as no one knows exactly when or where the idea of senior cords began, “no one knows exactly when or where” the idea made the inevitable transition from tradition to history.


Ed said...

Great nostalgia journalism, John. Thanks for the memories and history lesson.

Terry Schuck said...

We had them in Marion, IN in the 1960's. I couldn't afford the artistic kind, but I do have mine. We had friends autograph them.

Tigerdave said...

I'm wearing my 1961 painted senior cords to a 65th birthday party tonight! My wife did have to let the waist out a BIT...
They were all the thing at Pike Twp. H.S. in Indy then, and also at DePauw University until around 1963, when they suddenly became 'out'.

Gary Willoughby said...

Yes, I still have mine, I graduated from Columbus, Indiana High School in 1962. I had my mom peg them to the MAX.
Gary Willoughby

Anonymous said...

My hubby is from Winamac, Indiana and he still has his Senior Chords. He was class of 62 and he did most of his art work . Funny to me and neat. I was jealous as we did nothing so cool in Michigan. :)

Anonymous said...

We still make them at Noblesville High School!

Anonymous said...

Gathering supplies to help my senior daughter begin her pair in Noblesville, IN :)

Anonymous said...

I actually just rummaged a pair of these up from a picking a did 5 days ago! If you need another picture of a pair to use, you're more then welcomed to use mine! They are very interesting!

Anonymous said...

In June 67 and at the end of my Junior year my father informed us he had been transferred and we were moving. All that planning for MY Senior Cords went out the window. Even though we were moving to So. Bend, Indiana my new school didn't have that tradition and as a new kid it wouldn't have been fun for me anyway.

Anonymous said...

Just came across this great post. I'm doing a story on senior cords for Bloom magazine in Bloomington, Indiana. Yes, senior cords are unique to Indiana. This according to Kate Rowold, professor of fashion design at Indiana University. The tradition started at IU in 1912, but you are right that it became a much bigger deal at Purdue with their Cord Day Parade at the first football game of the year and other associated traditions. I was too young to have the chance to participate in the tradition, but mom still has her skirt. What a great way to celebrate school spirit!

Anonymous said...

I just came across some of my old photos I thought I had lost of senior cords I had painted for the 1960, 1961 and 1962 school years at Speedway High School. That was my high school business venture. The cords you have illustrated were my own personal senior cords, never washed, BTW, and I still have them. :)

David Stovall

DeeGeeRN said...

I graduated from Logansport HS (IN) in 1972. Senior cords were still popular then. As I look back in old yearbooks these cords were works of Art! Love this article.

Anonymous said...

I love this site. I graduated from Knox High School (Indiana) class of 57. I still have my senior cord skirt and school sweater with letters. I treasure these as I do my school albums "The Sandbur". What great memories.

Sandy Clark then - Nineveh High School said...

Cords were very important in the 60's in Nineveh Indiana. Nineveh consolidated with two other schools the fall of1967. I, like others already had them made so we wore them that first year. But I think after that the tradition was forgotten.

Sarah said...

Girls in Noblesville High wear senior cords but they are white jeans.