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Why SEC Fans Dress to the Nines for Football Games

It’s not uncommon to see pearls and heels at a southern university tailgate.

Kevin C. Cox/ Getty

From its storefront, Athens, Georgia’s Entourage Clothing and Gifts looks like any other suburban fast-fashion boutique. There are the typical offerings of skirts, dresses, blousy tops, jumpsuits, accessories, and other trendy garb in an array lightweight materials, but when customers walk past the registers to the back of store, they’re greeted by racks and racks of garments in a very select color scheme: red, black, and white.

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While the colorized merchandising might be perplexing to an out-of-towner, any native Georgian will immediately recognize that Bulldawg red as a symbol of imminent deliverance — it’s almost Saturday in Athens.

During college football season, many people who live below the Mason-Dixon line go to church twice a week — once on Sundays for regular church, and once on Saturdays for the game. Football at the 14 universities that comprise the Southeastern Conference is, for many, a religious experience, to be regarded as and dressed for as such.

Enter the gameday boutique.

In 2008, Katie Nichols, a University of Georgia graduate, opened up Entourage in Athens, after identifying a need for a store where college girls could shop for unique but affordable clothes.

Photo: Entourage

"You’re already in college. You’re already on a budget," says J. Hoover, Entourage’s director of marketing. He’s right: freshman girls have a lot of expenses, from outfitting a dorm room to you know, that pesky business of paying for college. "It’s expensive to be a [college] girl as it is," says Hoover, so many girls might not have the financial capacity to buy a slew of new red and black dresses. Hence the brand’s strict $40 price ceiling per piece.

Clearly, Nichols’ instinct was right. On September 1st, Entourage opened up its ninth location in Auburn, Alabama.

Of course, Entourage stocks clothes that aren’t gameday-specific too, but with gameday-driven sales making up approximately a third of their annual revenue, it’s an important pillar of the brand.

Photo: Entourage

"In all southern college towns, football is a huge part of that culture," says Hoover. "The entire back of our [Athens] store during gameday season is devoted to red and black." At other locations, the inventory is similarly tailored to reflect the team’s colors.

For now Entourage exists exclusively in southern college towns, although there are plans to move into other, more metropolitan areas in the future. But it isn’t the only store catering to these SEC girls. In Athens alone, Cheeky Peach and Red Dress Boutique section off parts of their stores for red and black garb in fall months. In Auburn and Tuscaloosa there’s Ellie. In Columbia, there’s Vestique. In Oxford, there’s Material Girls.

Online-only stores, like First & 10, The Tailored Socialite, Twelve Saturdays, and The Mint Julep, have sprung up as well. While they’re mostly focused on SEC schools now, some, like Twelve Saturdays, plan to add other conferences too.

This tradition has truly given life to its own, not-so-little sphere of the fast-fashion industry.

That SEC football fans dress up for gameday is a practice that’s widely known and well documented, but less understood. Why women elect to sit in the September southern sun, baking in the convection oven that is a metal-bleachered stadium, all while wearing a sundress, wedges, a full face of makeup, and very-done hair, is beyond the comprehension of some sports fans. Nevertheless, in the surrounding 10 mile radius of any SEC stadium, thousands of women at tailgates, at sorority houses, and at sports bars fit this dolled-up description to a T.

Even for football fans hailing from big schools in other conferences, the pervasiveness and extent of this practice in the SEC can be jarring. Dr. Mardi Schmeichel and Dr. Stacey Kerr both came from undergraduate campuses where football was a Big Deal, (Nebraska and Miami, respectively) before heading to the UGA for their doctoral programs.

"I had heard about the dressing up phenomenon in the south, but I guess I had kind of written it off as something a small group of women did."

"I had heard about the dressing up phenomenon in the south, but I guess I had kind of written it off as something a small group of women did, or that maybe it was just something in the Greek system," says Schmeichel. She quickly realized how drastically she had underestimated the both the football culture and the dedication to its fabled dress code. "It was far beyond the scope of what I had even been led to believe about how dressed up people were, and how many people were involved in that practice."

"Not even just college-aged women, but older women [were in dresses] as well," says Schmeichel.

For Kerr too, the difference in gameday attire was striking. "At Miami, women would dress up all the time to go to class... but at football games, it was T-shirts and shorts." says Kerr.

Their curiosity piqued, Schmeichel and Kerr together with their colleague Dr. Chris Linder, wanted to investigate further. (Kerr is now an assistant professor at Central Michigan University who studies gender and how it relates to geography, and Schmeichel is an assistant professor in the department of educational theory and practice at UGA, who researches the intersection of gender and sports culture in educational settings.)

On the first UGA gameday in 2013, they downloaded every Instagram that used the #godawgs hashtag to decipher just who was dressing up and to what extent. The pair combed through more than 5,000 images, categorizing who was dressed up and how dressy they were. In doing so, they learned that, unsurprisingly, some game-goers abstain from the ritual, and while there are both men and women who partake, women are far more likely to participate and be more dressed up than the men. Of the 642 images that depicted only women, 67.76% were classified as dressy by the researchers, while 32.24% were casual, which is a stark contrast to the 155 pictures of only men, of whom 92.9% were casual, while a mere 7.1% were dressed up. (They did not have data for pictures that depicted mixed groups of men and women.)

Saturday's are for the boys #godawgs

A photo posted by Shannon Bettiol (@shannonbettiol) on

"You hear that saying," says Kerr, "‘Girls in pearls, guys in ties.’ But the ‘guys in ties’ in our data, they were not nearly as present." Schmeichel agreed, "There were men who were maybe wearing a polo shirt, but in comparison the women were much dressier." The researchers considered "dressy" outfits as involving any kind of dress, skirt, low-cut/spaghetti strap top, heeled shoes, or items of clothing that don’t have a "masculine" equivalent. "We heard a lot about cowboy boots," says Schmeichel.

As to why this is more common among women rather than men, a little bit of sports history can help explain. It turns out, the practice is actually more of a preservation of tradition than a creation of one, as Kerr and Schmeichel discovered. According to local newspaper articles from the 1890s cited in The Ghosts of Herty Field, women from neighboring girls’ schools (because UGA wasn’t integrated at the time) were present at what the book claims is the very first football game in the deep south in 1892. And by 1893, women were such a fixture that at away games, their absence was notable.

"This was somewhat of a disappointment to the men… Athens is far superior in this respect, as the Lucy Cobb and Home School girls have become almost as essential to a game as the referee and umpire." — The Red & Black, as quoted in The Ghosts of Herty Field

Women in attendance at SEC games didn’t startdressing a certain way, they just never stopped.

So, if there have always been women at UGA games, and up until the ‘60s, they were always — quite literally — dressed up, women in attendance at SEC games didn’t start dressing a certain way, they just never stopped.

In explaining their gameday apparel, the female UGA students who spoke to Kerr and Schmeichel echoed this desire to preserve the past. For many, it’s fun to enact this idea of the southern belle, especially in this historically hyper masculinized space — a football stadium.

"You get to enjoy something masculine, but you get to be feminine while you do it," says one of their focus group participants.

While some girls unabashedly enjoy the tradition, others were frank about the impracticality of wearing dresses, heels, and otherwise feminized clothing to sporting events. After all, there is a lot of walking on game day — from the tailgate to the stadium, up and down the stairs, to the bathroom, and then back home (or straight to the bars). In this atmosphere, heeled shoes (or maybe more commonly, cowboy boots) are a strong statement that "I’m doing this because I want to look and be perceived a certain way."

Photo: Entourage

"We had people say ‘It’s really hot. I get sweaty. The shoes can be really uncomfortable.’ It was interesting to have some people acknowledge that it might not be practical to dress like that," says Schmeichel. Many girls complained they spent a lot of time on their hair, knowing it wouldn’t look that way for long, maybe just long enough to look nice for the pictures. One participant even admitted that "dressing up and taking pictures is more important than going to the game," recounted Schmeichel.

While it’s potentially different at other SEC schools, dressing up for games actually isn’t a Greek-life thing at UGA. "It’s pretty clear that it’s embedded in Greek life," says Schmeichel, but it’s not a tradition that they exclusively own. It’s something that girls all over campus "really want to participate in."

Stores like Entourage facilitate that inclusivity by making the price point accessible to women of all ages and from all financial backgrounds. Hoover says, "We service women from ages 15-16 all the way up to 50-60. We definitely have daughters, mothers, and grandmothers, three generations of women at the same time and all of them are able to purchase things from us."

Not entirely unrelated to the southern belle nostalgia, some girls consider football games good opportunities to meet men, and cited that desire as the reason for their outfit choices. "There’s a lot of guys in these spaces... and they want to look as nice as they can," says Schmeichel. But these two (somewhat predictable) reasons don’t account for the whole picture.

"What we didn’t expect to hear," says Schmeichel, "was this other major discourse: ‘We are doing it for the team, and we are doing it for the school. We represent UGA, and we are showing our support for the players."

"If you’re ready for the game, then the players are going to be ready for the game," said one interviewee. The girls, by looking a certain way and being present at the game, are then fulfilling their duty as Georgia fans, echoing the sentiments in the newspaper articles from 100 years ago. They’re fulfilling the expectation of what a UGA or SEC fan looks like, and in doing so, providing a kind of service to those institutions.

Photo: Entourage

Donning a girly outfit for a football game may be done in good fun, but there are some salient concerns as to the effect this has on an educational setting.

"This hyper feminized performance has its historical root in a time when women weren’t equal and were largely valued for their appearance," says Schmeichel. "When that’s being re-harkened on Saturday, and embraced and valorized, it’s hard to imagine it all goes away on Monday when men and women are sitting next to each other in a finance class."

Because the tradition is something women ascribe to more stringently than men, and can feel pressured to act out, it’s worth paying attention to, says Kerr. The expectation of adherence to normative gender roles doesn’t leave much room for any gray areas, a stark contrast to the backgrounding of the traditionally tolerant college campus.

While this isn’t necessarily a concern for all of the students participating, (in fact, some girls reported enjoying the assumption of traditional male/female gender roles), dressing up for games should feel like a choice. When girls are saying things like, "I do it because I feel out of place not to," well, that’s an issue.

What we wear to football games, especially on college campuses matters, and why we do it matters even more.

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