High school students in Texas have developed a tradition of wearing elaborate, ever-larger floral pins to their homecoming dances. These pins — many bigger than a dinner plate and covered in artificial flowers, ribbons, and even stuffed animals — are known as mums. Texas-based photographer Nancy Newberry has a series of portraits of teenagers wearing their homecoming mums in their homes and bedrooms, and it's strangely riveting.

The mum is to the corsage kind of as the Baz Luhrman Romeo + Juliet is to Shakespeare. Normally, mums are made with silk flowers (particularly chrysanthemums), trailing ribbons and feather boas that can reach the floor, and trinkets that represent the student's interests and activities. Some mums even have battery-powered lights or play recorded sound through hidden speakers. Typically worn by girls as enormous pins, they can weigh up to 20 lbs. Mums are markers of identity during adolescence, and a unique American folk art tradition.

Newberry calls mums "Artificial, shiny and virtually unknown outside of Texas." She started her portrait series in 2007 and has been working on it intermittently ever since. "I started a bit blind, but determined," she wrote in an email. "It takes a long time to get these pictures and finding my subjects is a lengthy part of the process. It takes a lot of trust to open your home to a stranger. There may be easier ways to approach the subject, but photographically the environments are an important part of the work."

Boys also wear mums, generally as arm garters.

Like other forms of clothing worn in honor of a social ritual (in this case, the homecoming dance) mums are a form of non-verbal communication based on symbolism that only a select group of people understands. To outsiders — non-Texans, or even just non-teenagers — they might look weird or impractical to wear. But that's not the point. To these girls and boys and their families, they are a key part of the high school experience.

I asked some Texan friends about their memories of homecoming mums. Mums can be exchanged by dates — rather like corsages and boutonnières at a formal dance — made or purchased by friends or family. Sometimes the members of certain school clubs or sports teams get matching mums.

Like any piece of clothing, mums communicate complex messages about the wearer's social class and status. Particularly popular kids wore more and more elaborate mums, explained one friend: "On the cheer squad we had bigs and littles and we made homemade garters for each other. And sometimes your family would get you a mum, too, in addition to the one your date got you. So you could have two mums and a garter if you were really special. It was insane."

The colors and decorations used to make mums are personalized according to the wearer's school and interests. Because it's homecoming, mascots and school colors are popular. Although many people make their own mums with ribbons, flowers, and glue, pre-purchased mums can top $100. (If you really want to go down an Internet k-hole, search "Homecoming mum" on Etsy or Pinterest. I dare you.)

I was previously unaware of the tradition of mums. But I'm sure some of the things my friends and I did growing up in New Zealand would seem just as odd to outsiders.

After the dance, mums are typically kept for display or posterity — pinned to a student's bedroom wall, say, or tucked away in a box by a proud parent.
Mum [Nancy Newberry]