‘Bama Rush’ documentary reminds us that clothes can send a message

‘Bama Rush’ documentary reminds us that clothes can send a message


Our national fascination with #BamaRush started with OOTDs.

It’s Outfits of the Day, for the uninitiated. Every sorority recruiting day at the University of Alabama in 2021, female students showed off their Gray Goose sneakers, floaty Pants Store shorts, and Kendra Scott pendants. There were chunky wedges and ruffled dresses and Lululemon “coming home” shorts; there were the amusing mishaps and the heartbreaking rejections. And we, the audience, were there for it all, until the Southern sorority hopefuls became sisters (though some never made it to Bid Day).

#BamaRush became hugely popular in August 2021 and again in 2022 – the hashtag has been viewed over 2.6 billion times on TikTok. Suddenly, millions of eyes turned to this previously mysterious ritual which, despite access provided by TikTok, still remains murky. And we got our first taste of Southern sorority life through their very specific clothing.

The documentary “Bama Rush,” premiering on Max (formerly HBO Max) on Tuesday, aims to demystify the bubbly yet heartbreaking recruitment we experienced vicariously on TikTok. (Max, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)

The sorority’s recruiting dress code is oddly conformist. Rookie outfits often communicate personality, privilege, and etiquette, among other qualities that sororities value. Clothes are what sucked us into #RushTok, and they’re also tools rushes use to impress an unknown group of young women with enviable social capital. And sororities often use them to maintain the status quo.

Jill Frank/The New York Times/Redux

A potential new member walks down Sorority Row at the University of Alabama during recruiting week in 2022.

The conformist elements of sorority life can be appealing at first: Writing for Racked, Stephanie Talmadge said in 2017 that “fraternities and sororities offer a quick fix to ‘who am I?’ enigma. Hurry up at the start of your freshman year and get a whole new label before you even set foot in a classroom.

The young women in “Bama Rush” express similar reasons for wanting to join a sorority – sisterhood, belonging, a strong sense of self. Carefully choosing clothes that express their desire to be accepted is only part of the process of joining a family of four.

And at the University of Alabama, Greek life is exceptionally popular — about 36 percent of all students, or 12,000 people, belong to one of the school’s 69 Greek organizations.

Recruitment emphasizes similarity: At a huge southern public university like Bama, sorority members can wear matching t-shirts and skorts for the first round and pull outfits from the same color palette. colors as recruitment progresses.

For potential new members, or PNMs, the Panhellenic Association at the University of Alabama also creates guides on what to wear for each round so they fit in with the rest of their peak group. These guides often don’t tell PNMs to avoid showing their bellies or wearing thin spaghetti straps, but current sorority members often do in comprehensive videos on do’s and don’ts of sorority recruitment on TikTok and YouTube.

A Bama alumnus who rushed told The Cut in 2021 that if these recruiting clothing guides aren’t “prescriptive,” if PNMs “don’t look like (they’re) supposed to (e.g., you show up in a T-shirt instead of a dress), people will say, “She’s weird”.

Trisha Addicks, a sorority recruiting coach who appears on “Bama Rush,” says the key to the perfect peak look is to “blend in without the craziness coming out.”

“You don’t have to be like everyone else…not trying to follow the crowd or the trend, but still fit into some type of mold for rushing,” Addicks says in the documentary, during which she accompanies a hopeful sorority on several occasions. stores to find suitable recruiting attire. “You don’t want to give a sorority a reason to cut you off.”

Jill Frank/The New York Times/Redux

A student shows off her wristband during recruiting at the University of Alabama in 2022.

So why the focus on dress? Historically, according to studies and interviews with sorority members throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, sororities chose pledge classes in an effort to move up or maintain their place in the Greek tier system, an arbitrary ranking and unofficial sororities and fraternities based primarily on the physical attractiveness of its members. (Active members of the University of Alabama sorority told “Bama Rush” director Rachel Fleit that the tier system, if they believed in its merits, was decided by the men of the fraternity.)

“Judging themselves openly in terms of male approval” was a “central theme” among sorority members who participated in a study throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, according to researchers Simone Ispa-Landa and Barbara J. Risman, in a 2021 comparison of studies from the mid-1970s to the present day. Now, as then, they write, “a woman’s appearance and perceived sociability remain crucial to being invited to a sorority.”

Michelle Lepianka Carter/The Tuscaloosa News/AP

Potential new sorority members participate in recruiting at the University of Alabama in 2012, a full decade before “Bama Rush” was filmed.

Ispa-Landa, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, also interviewed sorority members at an unnamed and highly selective college. Members there “despised” Southern sororities, she said in a phone interview.

But these Greek organizations also emphasized clothing and style during the recruitment process, Ispa-Landa said: When they took coats from PNMs, they secretly checked labels to find brands and designers. Class signifiers were another way to assess young women seeking membership, she said.

“They had other ways of using clothes to exclude and include,” Ispa-Landa said.

The elite college sororities shared the same goals as the Southern sororities: to build a promising class of conventionally attractive young women with ambition who would raise their profile on campus.

“I think a lot of the dress codes, formal and informal, that are part of sorority recruiting have to do with wanting to keep the group attractive to those high-status men — the fraternity men,” said Ispa-Landa.

Even when PNMs are doing everything “right” on the surface — sticking to certain types of attire and discussing trivial matters when recruiting — it may not be enough.

Elizabeth Bronwyn Boyd, author of “Southern Beauty: Race, Ritual, and Memory in the Modern South,” says in the documentary that recruitment is essentially “organizing people and groups of people into levels of power, status, and prestige”.

The Sisterhood Rush, she says, is a “proving ground for competitive femininity and contemporary Southern belle performance.” Consequently, many racialized elements of recruitment remain to this day. This was evident on Bama #RushTok, where most of the “main characters” were blonde, white and thin. In 2021, a biracial #RushTok star said she was pulled from all sororities before receiving an offer despite her immense popularity among viewers.

Panhellenic sororities have been predominantly white since their founding in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was extremely rare for black women to be accepted into a predominantly white university. But segregation continued long after black students began attending these schools, Texas Christian University professor Charlotte Hogg wrote for The Washington Post in 2020.

Black students would continue to form Greek organizations both at Howard University, an HBCU, and at predominantly white universities. These historically black fraternities and sororities are known as the “Divine Nine” and do not operate in the same system as historically white fraternities and sororities.

The historically white sororities at the University of Alabama weren’t even officially desegregated until 2013, after student newspaper The Crimson White revealed that some of the organizations were actively avoiding extending offers to black PNMs.

Courtesy of Max

Holliday, a student at the University of Alabama, was removed from her sorority as a freshman.

Only two of the four subjects interviewed in “Bama Rush” later joined sororities. One, who was “dropped out” by her first year of sorority, opted out of recruiting, and another dropped out before completing recruiting, tired of the artificiality of the process. (It was PNM shopping with Addicks; she later said that none of the dresses she tried on looked like her.)

Going through recruitment requires a compliance that’s probably familiar to most young women finding out who they are, and that’s perhaps why the process at schools like the University of Alabama remains so popular. But Ispa-Landa said many sorority members are disappointed when the idealized image of Greek life presented in recruitment fades.

“The women in my sample were really excited and hopeful to join,” she said. “But once they joined, they discovered a lot of things that made them really unhappy. The surge of excitement can kind of mask the darker things in some ways.

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