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Senior Cords: A College Tradition Goes High-Fashion

The fashion designer Emily Adams Bode Aujla bought her first pair of senior corduroy pants from a vintage-clothing seller in 2013 when she was a senior at the New School. The pants style had by then been around for more than a century.

Senior cords seem to have first appeared at Purdue University in Indiana in the early 1900s, according to an archivist at the university, and evolved to become a sort of wearable yearbook for college and high school seniors in the state.

The students would use corduroy clothes — typically pants and skirts in cream or yellow — as canvases that were illustrated with their favorite activities, sweethearts’ initials and other personal details. The practice continued for decades before it started to die out in the 1970s.

In 2018, about two years after Ms. Bode Aujla started her ready-to-wear brand Bode, which includes pieces made with antique materials and historical techniques like quilting, she started selling custom senior cords in an effort to revive the tradition.

“We are acting as conservationists and preservationists to ensure this story is continued to be told,” Ms. Bode Aujla, 33, said.

In 2019, the singer Leon Bridges wore a Bode senior cord suit to the Grammy Awards. Its illustrations featured his first name in red letters, playing cards and the Ford logo. The next year, a shirtless Harry Styles wore a pair of senior cord pants with drawings including a butterfly and a heart in the December 2020 issue of Vogue.

Last fall, the actor Jeff Goldblum appeared on the “Today” show in a Bode senior cord suit that featured illustrations of a Pittsburgh Steelers pennant, pancakes and a “Jurassic Park” logo. Earlier this year, Indiana University bought a senior cord jacket from the brand, and Bode sent along matching pants as well.

The Bode garments can include dozens of hand-drawn details, which are typically a mix of images, letters and numbers. After the Vogue issue with Mr. Styles, Ms. Bode Aujla said, her brand got requests to make other pieces with similar illustrations. But Bode avoids replicating drawings. each piece, Ms. Bode Aujla said, “is someone’s personal cord.”

On a recent afternoon at Bode’s offices in Brooklyn, four illustrators wielding fabric markers sat around a table covered with jackets made of corn-colored corduroy. One of the artists was drawing a blue bird, while another refined a poodle’s fluffy tufts of hair.

“People love portraits of their pets,” Aayushi Khowala, Bode’s director of illustration, said with a wry smile.

Ms. Khowala, 25, leads the team that produces Bode’s senior cord products. Raised in Kolkata, India, she studied printmaking and textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, and started working at Bode as a design assistant in 2019, after graduating from college.

Though her job now involves less illustrating, Ms. Khowala’s drawings have been featured on many senior cord pieces, including Mr. Styles worn in Vogue. “I pulled an all-nighter for that,” she said.

Bode’s senior cords, which are made with corduroy from a mill in Britain, now include notebooks (starting at $73) and pillows (starting at $268) as well as two jacket styles (both $2,100), shorts ($640), pants ($1,498) and a coat for babies ($428). Bode’s illustrators also produce senior cord sofas and stool cushions in collaboration with Green River Project, a furniture and interiors company co-founded by Ms. Bode Aujla’s husband.

Occasionally, Bode hosts events where customers can have the drawings on their senior cords modified for free. The tradition on campuses was often communal, with students getting together to draw on each others’ cords.

Adriana Harmeyer, the archivist for university history at Purdue, said the practice of drawing on the garments took off in the 1940s. Ms. Harmeyer said the first senior cords were reportedly worn in 1904, when two Purdue seniors had some pants made with a yellow corduroy fabric at Taylor Steffen Co., a tailor near the university.

“By the time the class of 1905 was establishing their class traditions, the senior cords were a part of that,” Ms. Harmeyer said.

Mary Figueroa, the curator of history at the Indiana State Museum, said the illustrations on senior cords became more elaborate as the tradition reached its peak in the 1960s. “When you get to the late ’60s, you start seeing airbrushing, and people start making them really pop,” she said.

At Noblesville High School in Noblesville, Ind., some students still carry on the tradition, but with garments made of white denim instead of corduroy. Marnie Cooke, a spokeswoman for Noblesville schools, whose daughter is a senior at the high school, said the cords are a celebration of friendship and a way for students to express their personalities and artistic visions.

Though most of Bode’s senior cord products can take up to eight weeks to make, it takes only days to complete a piece’s drawings. Determining what to draw, however, can take longer. Ordering a custom piece involves an email questionnaire that often leads to lengthy exchanges as designs are refined.

Bode, which also sells some senior cords with illustrations chosen by the brand at a slightly lower cost, is not the only American label to embrace the tradition. Ralph Lauren has featured stories on its website about the garments’ history at Purdue, and has made yellow corduroy pants printed with graphics that recall the drawings on senior cords.

Ms. Khowala said that the design process for custom Bode cords can make some customers emotional. “People are like, ‘Oh I cried typing this out to you,’” she said.

Ms. Bode Aujla thinks some of the beauty of the cords is tied to how the process can feel like a therapy session. “People would be like, ‘I’ve never told this story’ or ‘Nobody knows this about me,’” she said.

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