Senior Chords: A college tradition goes into high fashion


Fashion designer Emily Adams Bode Ojla bought her first pair of high-rise corduroy pants in 2013 when she was a senior at New School. The trouser style has been around for over a century at that point.

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

The students wore corduroys—typically pants and skirts in cream or yellow—and used canvases detailed with favorite activities, lovers’ initials, and other personal details. In the year The practice continued for decades before dying out in the 1970s.

In the year In 2018, two years after Ms. Bode Ojla launched her ready-to-wear brand, Bode, she began selling custom senior cords with the aim of reviving the tradition, featuring pieces made from antique materials and historical techniques such as quilting.

Ms. Bode Aujla, 33, said: “We are working as protectors and watchdogs to make sure this story is told.”

In the year In 2019, singer Leon Bridges wore a Bode senior lace dress to the Grammy Awards. His illustrations featured his initials in red letters, playing cards and the Ford logo. The following year, a shirtless Harry Styles appeared in the December 2020 issue of Vogue wearing high-waisted pants with prints including a butterfly and a heart.

Last fall, actor Jeff Goldblum appeared on the “Today” show in a Bode Sr. thong that featured images of a Pittsburgh Steelers pennant, pancakes and the “Jurassic Park” logo. Earlier this year, Indiana University purchased a corduroy jacket from the brand, and Bode also sent matching pants.

Bode suits can include dozens of hand-drawn details, which are typically a mix of pictures, letters and numbers. After the Vogue debacle with Mr. Style, Ms. Bode Ojla said her brand had received requests to do other similar illustrations. But Bode avoids repeating pictures. Each piece, says Ms. Bode Aujla, is “someone’s personal thread.”

On a recent afternoon at Bode’s offices in Brooklyn, four sketchers holding fabric markers sat around a table covered in corn-colored corduroy jackets. One of the artists was drawing a blue bird, and the other was brushing the soft fur of a poodle.

“People love pictures of their pets,” says Bode illustration director Ayushi Khuwala with a wry smile.

Ms. Kowala, 25, heads the team that manufactures Bode Senior’s rope products. Raised in Kolkata, India, she studied printmaking and textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, and after graduating college in 2019, began working as a design assistant at Bode.

Although her work is less expressive now, Miss Koala’s images have appeared on many senior chord pieces, including the pantsuits worn by Mr. Style in Vogue. “I pulled an all-nighter for that,” she said.

Made from tin from a mill in Britain, Bode’s senior lines now include notebooks (starting at $73) and pillows (starting at $268), as well as two jacket styles (both $2100), shorts ($640), pants ($1,498). and coats for children ($428). Bode Illustrations has partnered with Green River Project, a furniture and interior design company founded by Mrs. Bode Aujla, to produce high-end sofas and stool cushions.

From time to time, Bode hosts events where customers can have pictures on their seniors retouched for free. The tradition on campuses was often communal, with students gathering together to draw each other.

Purdue University Historical Archivist Adriana Harmeier says the practice of painting on the clothes began in the 1940s. Mrs. Harmeyer reportedly wore the first senior corduroys in 1904. Two Purdue seniors had pants made of yellow corduroy fabric by the Taylor Stephen Company near the university.

“When the class of 1905 was establishing class traditions, senior strings were a part of that,” said Mrs. Harmeier.

Mary Figueroa, curator of history at the Indiana State Museum, said examples of high ropes became more elaborate as the culture peaked in the 1960s. “When you get to the late ’60s, you start to see airbrushing, and people start to really pop it,” she says.

At Noblesville High School in Noblesville, Ind., some students still carry on the tradition, but with clothes made of white denim instead of cotton. Noblesville schools spokeswoman Marnie Cook said her daughter, a senior in high school, said the ropes are a celebration of friendship and a way for students to express their personalities and artistic visions.

Although most of Bode’s senior rope products can take up to eight weeks to make, it only takes days to complete drawings for one piece. Deciding what to draw, however, can take a long time. Ordering a custom piece involves an email inquiry that often leads to lengthy exchanges as designs are refined.

Bode isn’t the only American label to embrace the tradition, selling some high-end lines at a fraction of the cost with brand-selected graphics. Ralph Lauren has featured stories about the history of clothing at Purdue on its website, and yellow corduroy pants are printed with graphics reminiscent of paintings on high ropes.

Ms. Kowala said the process of designing custom Bode cables can make some customers nervous. “People are like, ‘Oh, I cried writing this to you,’” she said.

Ms. Bode Aujla thinks some of the beauty of ropes is tied to the fact that the process can feel like a therapy session. “People would say, ‘I’ve never told this story,’ or ‘No one knows about me,'” she said.


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