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Senior Cords: Unfolding the Lives of Young Hoosiers

Blog post by Wayne Hastings

Just a few weeks ago, I was responsible for accessioning a small group of donations
given to us by Shirley Bowman. Bowman, a 1961 Elletsville graduate, offered the Center a
wonderful assortment of high school memorabilia which included two pairs of beautifully hand-designed ‘senior cords’ owned by both Shirley and her husband, Carl.

Janet 2For those not familiar, senior cords were off-white, occasionally yellow, corduroys worn
and designed by high school or college seniors. Each pair of cords were ornately decorated with cartoon characters, inside jokes, song references, names of boyfriends or girlfriends, club names, and just about anything so as to capture the student’s personality. Although they reached their peak popularity during the 1950s and 60s, the unique fashion trend stretches all the way back to 1904 according to Purdue University. The trend was born when a few Purdue upperclassmen decided to don some flamboyant yellow corduroys they saw displayed in a shop window. Senior cords spread throughout Indiana and remained mostly an exclusive Hoosier tradition among students.

Extra 1The recent donations immediately influenced me to dig out some of the other wonderful
cords in our collection. Examining each of the cords will be an excellent way to learn about these young Hoosiers’ lives – who did they date, what music did they listen to, what extracurricular activities did they participate in, and what kind of jokes did they tell?

Shirley 1Starting off, I would like to share the two pairs of cords donated by Bowman. In 1961,
Shirley wore a beautifully decorated skirt with all the definitive senior cord characteristics – we know she was high school sweethearts with Carl Bowman, the #50 basketball player who played for Stinesville, she was especially proud of graduating, she was a choir student, and she was keen on rock n’ roll with a reference to both Elvis Presley’s “Loving You” and Bobby Rydell’s big hit “We Got Love”. She was also a wonderful artist, if she indeed painted these cords. Around Carl’s basketball jersey she used a thin layer of gold flake giving it great detail. Taping on a Elvis print
was inventive since this is the only pair in the collection that does it.

Carl’s pants unfolds a very different individual. Mr. Bowman enjoyed reading Alley Oop
comics, perhaps for their graphic nature because of the addition of the blood, and possibly was interested in early American history. His illustration of a scruffy union soldier getting shot with an arrow could have been instead inspired by a love of western films – John Ford’s 1951 “Rio Grande” comes to mind. Moonshine jugs of mountain dew, crude drawing of pin up girls, and basketballs are also scattered on the pants. The placement of pictures on the seat of the pants are often used as visual jokes, in this case Carl painted a basketball with the names of the team on it. Next to the basketball are cheerleader megaphones with the names of the Stinesville cheerleaders. From donated trophies, we know that Carl was Stineville’s most valuable basketball player from 1959 to 1961. Just as with yearbooks, both cords don a large amount of friends’ names. We get a sense that these friendships were cherished.
Carl 1

Dennis 1Dennis Hamilton, a 1956 Bloomington High School graduate, donated a very special pair
of senior cords to the Center – his cords had won the BHS Senior Cords competition. The competition began in 1952 and marked when the trend had reached its peak popularity. Teachers were no longer discouraging them, in fact Mrs. Margaret Raab, the BHS art teacher, was one of the judges. Hamilton’s cords are decorated with unique designs such as a zoot suit man, a prophetic hen, Mickey Mouse and gang, and as well as an explosion humorously placed on the seat of the pants. He also incorporates two other common jokes – the inclusion of a “HOWDY DOODY RAG” (or booger rag) hanging out of the back left pocket and cash falling out of the right pocket with “BANK” written on the flap.

Dennis 2

 

Judy Radar, another BHS graduate, designed her cords in 1958 and included a plethora of late 50s songs that charted the Billboard Top 100 – including “In the Middle of an Island”, “Love Letters in the Sand”, “The Green Door”, “Day O (Banana Boat Song)”, “Hound Dog”, and “All Shook Up”. Radar also paints inside jokes of a man hiding behind a building labeled as the “PARKWAY” and of a roller skater named Ronda who seemed to have a bad fall, indicated by the bandaged knee. Her interest in fast cars, motorcycles, cowboys, and bowling makes her like her fellow BHS graduates, as well with the large number of friends’ names.
Judy 1

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