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Three young women, dressed identically, stand in front of a large door. They yell-announce their names, their elected titles. They confess that they’ve been waiting for you all summer (they have?) and are so glad you’re finally here. The doors open. “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Your eyes adjust to the flutter of movement that you realize is hundreds of twinkling fingers, fingers that belong to more identically dressed women, standing in leveled rows that seem impossibly neat. The women are now yell-singing and clapping.
This is called a “door stack,” and if you haven’t seen one in real life, you very well may have in one viral sorority recruitment video or another. It’s easy to understand why the clips become internet sensations, with their eerie, Stepford-like quality that comes courtesy of the matching outfits, the plastered-on smiles, and the fact that most, if not all, of the girls are white. They probably have the same hairstyle, too — long and straight or tamely curled.
When the doors fly open, and the initial screaming and spirit-fingering evolve into choreographed chanting, the effect is so visually ridiculous that it feels like a sinister punchline. “Horror movie of the summer,” read one headline in response to last year’s most infamous video, from the University of Texas at Austin chapter of Alpha Delta Pi. More intrepid tweeters remixed the video to look like the doors were, in fact, opening the gates of hell. Get Out references will surely be incorporated into this year’s crop of memes.
Even to the literally initiated, those who have participated in sorority rush several times over themselves, the scene can be unsettling, dredging up memories of the worst week of the year. (Anyone who disagrees is lying.) The girls in that Alpha Delta Pi video will probably execute their routine a dozen more times that day, for several days. It’s Texas, in August, so it’s blazing hot. They’re packed in that doorframe like sardines; some schools have even banned this formation due to reported injuries, ranging in severity from minor cuts and bruises to concussions.
After the singing ends, the sorority girls will engage in small talk with potential new members, known as PNMs, for the remainder of the round. Then they’ll scurry to their voting groups, where they’ll rate the girls they just met, before setting up to do it all again for the next batch of PNMs. They’ve been rehearsing every aspect of this performance, down to their conversation points, for at least a week, and preparing for recruitment more generally since last spring — planning their coordinated outfits, scouting incoming freshmen, maybe even putting up pictures of girls they definitely want around the house. When they tell you, “We’ve been waiting for you all summer,” they aren’t exaggerating.
College is an opportunity to start anew — away from the watchful eyes of parents, from friends who knew you back when, from the reputation that stuck to you for the past decade or so. It’s a chance to be the Very Cool person you know yourself to be, but that your high school wouldn’t allow for on account of all that history and the unfair social politics of adolescence. In college, you get to leave all that behind. But when your labels — honors student, theater kid, “friends with Suzy and them” — are gone, you’re left with a difficult question: Who am I?
Fraternities and sororities offer a quick solution to the “who am I?” conundrum. Rush at the beginning of your freshman year and get a brand new label before you even step foot inside a classroom. It’s an identity to assume during those first few weeks of endless introductions: I’m a Delta Zeta. I’m an Alpha Chi Omega. I’m a Phi Mu. It provides you with activities to partake in and people who are obligated to socialize with you. For those who are used to in-group status, or who seek in-group status after being denied it earlier in their teens, Greek life promises not just a sense of self, but a sense of belonging.
The earliest women’s collegiate organizations, which would later become the Greek-lettered groups we know today, began forming in the early 1850s as a reaction to women being barred from the secret societies founded by their male peers. Today, the National Panhellenic Conference, or NPC, recognizes 26 different sororities. A given school may have four of those, or 12, or 19. In the 2015–16 academic school year, there were more than 400,000 active undergraduate sorority members in the United States; at schools where Greek life has a major presence, anywhere between 30 and 55 percent of the undergraduate student body will pledge a house and as many as 2,600 women will participate in recruitment each year.
These numbers are big, but the groups remain exclusive through Panhellenic-determined pledge class quotas. At the University of Alabama, which hosts 17 NPC sororities, a record 93 percent of recruits got bids in 2016, but at a smaller school like Cornell, with 13 sororities, only 69 percent of recruits were offered membership. And, of course, some houses are more desirable than others, even if no one wants to admit it.
Exclusivity has always been a feature of the Greek system, with early groups adhering to discriminatory policies that denied entry to nonwhite and non-Christian members. As a result, cultural-interest Greek organizations sprung up; the first Jewish fraternity was founded just before 1900, and black Greek organizations began to form shortly after that. It wasn’t until the 1950s that NPC and Interfraternity Conference (IFC, the male counterpart to NPC) groups began accepting nonwhite members, and many groups held out long after that before admitting any black students.
Even today, there remains some debate about the degree to which discriminatory practices still exist, and there are Greek chapters that continue to perpetuate hate. During these times of political uncertainty and tension for the same marginalized groups that have been historically ostracized from Greek life, the pervasive whiteness that still exists within the community feels particularly significant and highlights the sense of sameness sororities can project.
Coordinating dress has been part of the sorority experience since their inception; early photographs of sororities frequently show sisters styled alike. Sorority pins were historically worn to signify membership, and sisters weren’t supposed to place any other pins above them. When a sorority woman began going steady with a fraternity man, there was usually a candlelit sisterhood ritual to commemorate her wearing his pin. Though pins are still a major part of game-day dressing at schools with zealous football culture, their everyday usage has all but died out. Instead, today’s college campuses are awash in lettered T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and other gear.
It all begins with rush, which is comprised of an odd set of ritualized events and forced mingling that culminates in PNMs, most of whom are freshmen, receiving “bids” from sororities. Bids invite them to pledge the group, with the goal of becoming a full-fledged initiated sister by the end of the semester. Most schools rush in the fall, though some do so in the spring.
The rush process involves several rounds and can last anywhere from a couple of days to a whole week depending on the size of the university and the number of women going through recruitment. For each round, PNMs rank the houses they like most while active members rank the PNMs they like most in a system called mutual selection. The idea is that by the end of the week, a house’s bid feels like fate, and you as a PNM feel you’re where you’re truly supposed to be. It certainly felt like that for me, when I pledged Pi Beta Phi at the University of Georgia in 2010.
Of course, it’s not fate; it’s simply the final sum of scores assigned to things like high school GPA and extracurriculars, plus subjective opinions translated into more arbitrary scores. It’s all carefully calculated and painstakingly orchestrated, with significant time, effort, and money spent ensuring that active members present a flattering, unified front to the PNMs. As Alan DeSantis writes in his book Inside Greek U, “A great pledge class can elevate a group in the eyes of its peers and, of course, intrigue the women on campus; a poor pledge class can engender gossip about an organization’s demise.” Most sororities have a team of elected officials who handle recruitment planning, which includes designing T-shirts, picking themes, and planning dress codes for each round. Day 1 might be floral dresses, Day 2 solid, warm-colored dresses, and so on.
Rebecca Pannek, the University of Georgia’s current Panhellenic president, told me that while the recruitment dress code for active members is largely up to the sororities themselves, campus Greek leadership does approve general plans and give some guidelines. “We don't allow them to require every member of the chapter to buy the exact same dress, for example. That shouldn't be a financial obligation to everyone in the chapter,” says Pannek. “There are a few that want to wear the same color on certain days. Obviously, to make it look nice they'll have a theme, a few colors.” So an active member still might need to buy a dress, just not a specific dress.
Once a plan is approved, chapter members may then need to get specific approval for each dress; this is known as “dress check.” In my first years as an active sister and thus a rusher rather than a rushee, we would submit photos of ourselves in our dresses from several angles to the recruitment chairs for approval. Meanwhile, fraternity men don’t have to do anything of the sort. In fact, as a governing body, the IFC is considerably more lax than the NPC. For example, fraternities are permitted to host co-ed parties (maybe you heard?), yet sorority women can’t even keep alcohol in the house. It’s not surprising then that there’s barely a semblance of formal recruitment among fraternities — sometimes informal bids are even given out over the summer at parties hosted by the houses, where the guys just hang out.
My senior year, we had to get each dress approved in person during the week prior to recruitment. This meant that after practicing in Georgia’s unforgiving summer heat all day, we needed to put on the dresses we had chosen for rush and the underwear we intended to wear with them (Spanx were highly encouraged, “regardless of what size you are”), as well as shoes and jewelry, and stand in line for up to two hours while getting assessed by the recruitment chairs. Sometimes you’d get approved outright, but other times you were asked to make adjustments. “Can you add a belt?” “It’s good, but you’re going to straighten your hair for actual recruitment, right?” “That pattern is too busy, can you show us something simpler?”
On its face, clothing advice isn’t malicious; friends give it and seek it all the time. Who among us hasn’t dropped a fitting-room selfie into a group chat? But dress checks are different. The committee’s ultimate goal here isn’t to help you look your personal best, even though that’s how it’s spun. It’s about making sure that each individual’s clothes and makeup reflect the group’s collective attractiveness and stylishness.
Sororities have fielded criticism of leaked recruitment dress code guidelines in recent years. Jezebel memorably called those of the Alpha Chi Omega chapter at the University of Southern California “batshit.” The guidelines included lines like, “If you are not wearing the required makeup, I will stop you and apply it myself” and “Your hair needs to be one normal color. No crazy ombre, no color you wouldn't see in nature.” If you’re thinking, well, this is one unhinged recruitment chair; surely, they’re not all like this, you’re right. They’re not all like this, but they’re perhaps more common than you’d think.
“My senior year, I was benched out of recruitment, and they didn't tell me why,” one woman who went to a large state school in the South and asked to remain anonymous told me. “Finally I was like, ‘Is it because my hair is bleached-out blond and looks really bad?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ I was like, ‘I would have dyed it brunette.’ I don't hold it against them now, because I look back and I'm like, ‘Yeah, it was really bad.’”
Emma Gregg, a 25-year-old freelance writer in Maine who was an Alpha Gamma Delta at Syracuse University, has a similar story. When she showed up to recruitment her junior year with neon-pink hair, her sisters were concerned that the visiting adviser from the sorority’s national headquarters would not approve.
"I remember one of my sisters asked me, ‘What if they make you dye it?’ and I was like, ‘Well, I won't,’” says Gregg. “I learned pretty early on, if I don’t buy into this, you guys don't have any power over it. If they said, ‘Dye your hair,’ I'd say no. Then they'd say, ‘You can't do rush,’ and I'd say, ‘Well, okay, no one likes rush.’ Then they'd say, ‘We'll charge you,’ and I'd say, ‘No, I will not pay you a couple hundred dollars because I dyed my hair.’”
In the end, the national adviser didn’t care about Gregg’s dye job. “Or if they did, they didn't tell me,” says Gregg, adding that others were caught off guard by the adviser’s nonchalance.
That’s the case for so many of the “rules” that sorority women are bound by. They’re not written down anywhere, not officially codified, and in many cases, not necessarily things that the national leadership would support. They’re conceived and enforced by each chapter’s sisterhood, supposedly for the house’s present and future legacy.
For PNMs, the pressure of deciding what to wear can be just as distressing. As a freshman, I wore the following outfits: a beige Anthropologie dress that was my greatest pride and joy at the time; a pink floral Jack by BB Dakota dress that, in retrospect, was a size too small; a chambray number from Delia’s; and a black dress from Loft. The bag I carried was an ivory crossbody from Steve Madden that had a leather rosette on the front, and my shoes were flat sandals, recommended because we were on our feet all day.
Heading into recruitment, I felt armed and ready, but when I met my rush group, I was shocked at how much older and more put-together many of the girls looked in their outfits. They wore more makeup more expertly applied, and paired more expensive-looking dresses with coordinating accessories. Of course, some eschewed the advice to stick to flat shoes.
“Some schools in the South are crazy!” says Sarah Bilbrey, who moved from London to attend the College of Charleston. “You buy dresses for it. I literally used dresses I had in my closet, and honestly, since I lived in London, most of them were black. I remember the other girls were wearing Lilly Pulitzer, and I had never heard of it before. I showed up in Converse sneakers and the general rush T-shirt and white shorts, but everyone else was wearing those Jack Rogers. I was like, ‘Mom! I need those shoes.’ And she was like, ‘No, those are $90 flip-flops, you don’t need those.’” Bilbrey made it through the week in her Converse and ultimately ended up pledging her first-choice house, Chi Omega.
Georgia’s Greek leadership is trying to deemphasize the importance of clothing, for both active members and PNMs. “We really discourage wedges and uncomfortable dresses, and so I think it's gotten a lot more casual, which is really good,” says Pannek. “We're moving towards a quote-unquote 'no frills' recruitment process. We try to strip it down to what is important in this process. Obviously, you can't control all of the cattiness and everything, but we really try to make it not focused on what they're wearing and not make it such a requirement: ‘You have to dress this way to be in this chapter.’” But, at the same time, Pannek admits, “I can't control who they accept.”
For the sororities governed by the National Pan-Hellenic Council, or NPHC, clothing guidelines for rush are less rigid, but still important. These groups, whose members are predominately black, tend to be much smaller in size, and resultantly, more intimate in their recruitment process.
Rather than the formulaic round system of NPC sororities, aspiring NPHC women attend community and scholarship-based programs and socials, and later, more formal rush events hosted by the sororities they’re interested in. These events occur throughout the year, depending on the sorority’s availability to bring in a new class. Women rushing then apply for the sorority they are most interested in by filling out applications, much in the same way one would for a job, and are offered membership based on how high their application scores. The professional element extends into the dress code as well, with active members wearing business casual dress to events. As Arynn Byrd, a Delta Sigma Theta at UGA, tells me, for her that’s “either a polo that has your letters on it with a nice business skirt, or a nice red or black dress,” which are her sorority’s colors. “When you’re just kind of looking at different sororities and attending different programs,” she says, “it doesn't matter what you wear. But once you’re interested and you’re at rush, it’s business casual.”
Unlike NPHC member intake where there’s no guesswork about which sorority will offer you membership, bid day — the final day of NPC recruitment — offers a strange combination of emotions, since women can get bids from any house they visited in the previous round, which typically number two or three. For some, not receiving a bid from their top choice will be devastating. Those who won’t get a bid at all receive phone calls from their recruitment leaders in advance, to spare them the embarrassment of showing up only to leave empty-handed. For others, the house name on the bid card is simply a confirmation of their Greek destiny. Many schools encourage PNMs, brimming with nervous excitement, to show up in white dresses to discover which sorority has decided to welcome them.
Hugs are distributed and tears are dried before the girls head to their new sorority houses for parties (themed, of course) in their honor. After a long week of being buttoned-up, bid day offers a chance for the active members to dress down a bit, or lean hard into a theme with a costume and matching glittery makeup. After dinner, mingling, literally hundreds of photos, and probably a dance party, the older members will likely change into white dresses for the ceremony portion of the evening, where the PNMs will officially pledge membership to the house.
For most sororities, white dresses are worn during any kind of ceremony, like bid day, initiation, which will take place when the pledge period is over, and sometimes for other house-specific rituals. Of course, the full roster of white’s symbolic meanings is at play here — purity, virginity, the concept of tabula rasa, surrender — but it’s also a way to create immediate unity among the chapter. When everyone is dressed the same, there’s a sense of equality, of belonging. The lights are low, heads are bowed, promises are whispered. If that sounds like a religious ceremony to you, that’s because it more or less is. In the moment, it feels hokey, but it also feels special.
After the ritual, maybe one of the older girls asks you if you want to go to a party at her friend’s fraternity house. Maybe she offers to let you borrow a dress that’s a little less white, a little less ceremonial, a little less Hey boys and/or police officers, I just pledged a sorority today and I am 18. Maybe she says you can sleep over at the house, and she’ll take you back to the dorms in the morning. Maybe she does; maybe she doesn’t. In any case, you’re in.
While recruitment offers the first and most glaring display of sorority dress codes, they certainly persist beyond that week. Some fraternities require their pledges to dress in a specific — usually embarrassing — uniform, both at parties and on campus. Universities consider any mandatory dress for pledges hazing, and sororities formally disapprove of hazing practices, as per the NPC. That doesn’t mean it never happens, but it does mean that new members don’t often parade around dressed identically. There are still plenty of opportunities for dress-up, though.
Socials — typically parties where one sorority and one fraternity “mix” — are held frequently and are almost always themed, requiring near-weekly shopping trips, which present both bonding opportunities for members and unofficial financial obligation. Like the door stack videos, plenty of controversial social themes have gone viral for being appropriative or flat-out offensive.
Pannek told me Panhel asks sororities to run questionable themes by the board. “Any social theme that makes fun or targets a specific population — whether that’s a culture or a specific personality — we try to say to stay away from that,” she says. “There’s some where obviously no one is gonna be offended by that,” referencing the white trash theme common among the predominately white houses at UGA, “but there’s some where we’re like, ‘absolutely not, that’s horrible.’”
The suggested dress codes for sorority semiformals and formals usually amount to short dresses for the former and long for the latter, but those are very loose guidelines. Probably more accurately they would be something like, “Look pretty, but not too slutty.”
During my time at UGA, most fraternities hosted overnight weekend trips as their formals. Two of the most exclusive fraternities on campus, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Kappa Alpha, themed their formals as celebrations of the Old South. Frat brothers would ride on horseback to pick up their dates at their sorority houses, everyone dressed in Old Southern attire — hats and suspenders for the men, old-timey hoop skirts for the women.
These outfits were only worn for the parade portion of the event; afterward participants changed into normal clothes for the bus ride to whatever destination awaited. In my four years, only one or two women from my sorority got asked to one of these exclusive date events. UGA outlawed the antebellum-style costumes in 2015.
In a paper titled “Social Values, Conformity, and Dress,” Lynn Kahle, a professor emeritus of marketing at the University of Oregon, and three of his colleagues examined how social values can influence fashion. For that study, participants rated the importance of nine different values; those who rated values considered especially interpersonal — warm relationships with others, sense of belonging, being well-respected — highly were more likely to adhere to group standards in terms of fashion.
It’s not just special occasions that have Greek men and women dressing alike. Beloved brands and styles run rampant in individual chapters and throughout the entire Greek system, even at different schools. What we’ve come to recognize as Greek style roots itself in prep, with an emphasis placed on comfort and modesty. While there are regional variations on the look, it often takes on a Southern cast: collared shirts with shorts, bright colors, busy prints, boat shoes, Croakies.
When people want to be part of a group, they cooperate with it, and so if the group places importance on a certain look or style, members will conform aesthetically. This is especially true for new members who want to cement their roles in the group. Washington State University professor Linda (Boynton) Arthur explains in a paper that “there was a tendency for new [sorority] members to spend their first few years conforming to appearance norms. Successful role embracement led to role adequacy.” Projecting the symbols of belonging is a way for new members to assuage their insecurity in the new group, and some brands dealing in the Greek aesthetic capitalize on that by promoting themselves at chapter meetings.
For an up-and-coming designer like Kendra Scott or Lisi Lerch, “it’s the sorority girls who’ve become some of her most important customers,” reports Kim Bhasin in a Bloomberg Businessweek piece on the subject. As Bhasin explains, when sorority girls pick up on a certain item, it has potential to become a staple within the chapter at one school, and then spread through the sisterhood to chapters at other schools. The girls then show their moms, opening the brand up to a whole new demographic. “It’s built-in-fashion camaraderie,” Lisi Lerch told Bhasin. “It spreads like wildfire.”
Brands like Kendra Scott and Lisi Lerch actively seek out business from sorority women by physically infiltrating their chapters, but other brands have become Greek staples by virtue of being established preppy brands that appeal to younger consumers. Lilly Pulitzer, Jack Rogers, Tory Burch, Brooks Brothers, Kate Spade, and Vineyard Vines are all Greek favorites, particularly in the South and Midwest.
Some of these brands, seizing on their Greek popularity, have actively appealed to the community. When I pledged Pi Phi, each new member was gifted a $95 Vineyard Vines canvas tote trimmed with fabric emblazoned with our letters and symbol. An employee at the Vineyard Vines outlet store in Georgia told me they didn’t sell anything with sorority insignia in-store anymore (the bags are also sold out online), but I could request customization on the website.
Lilly Pulitzer, famous for its bold and bright signature patterns, also made a play for Greek spending power while I was in college by holding a contest to develop a custom Lilly pattern for a national sorority. The premise was simple: Whichever of the 26 NPC-recognized sororities had the most votes would get their very own print to be used for apparel, agendas, phone cases — you name it.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to overstate how important it was to my sorority to win this competition. (We didn’t.) I don’t even like Lilly Pulitzer, and yet I found myself going to vote for Pi Beta Phi daily. The company ultimately ended up hosting multiple contests, and the winners merely determined the order in which the patterns were rolled out. We eventually got one; I never bought anything.
It is the Greek T-shirt that’s become the community’s style hallmark, always emblazoned with letters, often on the front pocket (“frocket”). There’s a tee to commemorate rush, and one for every event that follows — at the end of every school year, you could easily end up with a dozen in your possession. Even outside the Greek community, T-shirt culture is pervasive on college campuses; it’s nearly impossible to attend a function, whether it be hosted by an organized group or the school at large, without taking one home.
On bid night, the “biddies,” as they’re affectionately called, are showered in lettered swag: notebooks, shot glasses, Greek-letter stickers for their cars, giant hand-painted letters to hang on the outside of their dormitory doors, and a T-shirt or two. Wearing the tees that first week is exciting — it allows you to easily scout for sisters in your classes, on your hall, in the dining halls. Finding another girl with the same T-shirt is an immediate entry point for conversation, and ideally, friendship. It can make a giant, overwhelming campus feel a little smaller and more manageable.
“Coming from out of state, I knew absolutely nobody,” says Jen Kline, who pledged Delta Delta Delta at the University of Central Florida in 2012. “It's not an exaggeration. I did not know a single person in the state of Florida. I would be wearing my shirt, and it made the biggest difference to me that when I was walking through campus, an older girl who I've never seen before in my life would wave and say, ‘Hi.’ You know? They didn't know my name then, but they would eventually.”
Even if it’s not necessarily the same shirt, the wearing of any Greek letters produces more or less the same effect. “Girls who were not in my sorority but were also wearing letters would smile at you,” says Kline. “I'm sure some people would interpret that as being rude to other people, but it wasn't. It was just you were trying to find a community.”
It might sound silly, finding a friend through a T-shirt, but it happens, and it’s been happening for a long time. Stephanie Derby was a member of Fresno State’s 1982 Delta Gamma pledge class. “The highlight for me in wearing my Greek letters was after I had graduated from college,” says Derby, who went on to Sonoma State to get her teaching credentials. She decided to wear her sorority letters to class on the first day, and noticed that one of the only other younger women present was wearing her letters too. They started talking and “what came out of me wearing that Greek-lettered sweatshirt to class brought this camaraderie that has lasted for a quarter-century,” says Derby.
But whenever there is bonding over inclusion, there are people who are inevitably excluded. Women who rushed and didn’t get offered bids. Women who wanted to rush but couldn’t afford the membership dues, which are significant, on top of tuition and other expenses. Women who feel at odds with the normative feminine identity that defines many sororities. Men who identify as femme, as well as trans and nonbinary folks. Women of color who in the past weren’t granted admission to these groups. Sorority girls wearing their letters day in and day out, matching with each other, can be a symbolic reminder of the places that haven’t, or possibly won’t ever, accept you.
Because of that eagerness to self-identify as a member by wearing letters, it can be easy to distinguish Greek from non-Greek students on campus. “It was very separated at our school,” says Bilbrey, who was the T-shirt chair of her Chi Omega chapter at the College of Charleston. “You know you’re in a sorority if you’re dressing that way. Only the people in sororities had those Graphic Cow shirts,” she says, citing the design company she used for her chapter’s T-shirts. “Otherwise where would you get them? They weren’t in stores.”
Kline noticed a similar dichotomy at UCF: “It was really rare to see a girl wearing anything remotely sorority-esque who wasn't in one.” Sorority women didn’t necessarily dress identically, but they wore their letters almost constantly. “You had to pay for the shirts,” says Kline, “so that's your whole wardrobe.”
With all the money being thrown around on T-shirts, college campuses are rife with opportunity for vendors. Locally run businesses still have monopolies on some college towns, but companies that operate nationally have gained prominence in the past few years. Becca Roberts is an account manager at one such T-shirt design company called Geneologie. Geneologie sends sales reps to job fairs at big schools to get its name out there, but the majority of its business comes from word of mouth. Geneologie doesn’t explicitly only serve Greek organizations, but they make up 90 to 95 percent of its business, with sororities placing more orders than fraternities.
Social media has played a big part in the Greek T-shirt business boom. Roberts says that the majority of Geneologie’s clients come to the company with designs they stumbled upon on Instagram or Pinterest and ask to have customized for their chapter; she gets a lot of requests for designs similar to those of a company called South by Sea, whose look skews a little less traditionally Greek, and a little more graphic-tee section at Forever 21. In those cases, Geneologie will come up with a proof that resembles the original, but is different enough to avoid any copyright issues.
Because it’s too expensive and timely to copyright each and every design, companies have an unspoken rule not to totally rip off each other’s work, Adam Block, owner of Adam Block Designs, tells me. He recognized the Greek tee market’s potential while he was performing T-shirt chair duties for his fraternity at UCLA back in 2008. “There weren't too many people doing art in our fraternity, so they let me have full rein,” he remembers. At the time, his designs were more fashion-forward than some of the big players like University Tees, and when other student groups began employing his services, he decided to go all in on the venture.
“We wanted to make shirts and other apparel for sororities that girls wouldn't just want to wear for one event, for one night, and then throw it away, put it in the bottom of the drawer. We wanted to make stuff that maybe people would even consider wearing out at night,” says Block. “That also coincided with American Apparel, and they were really big at that time. We were the first people to really print on stylish, comfortable shirts.”
The company now employs 10 full-time staffers, and Block attributes much of its growth to its Campus Coordinator program. From design conception to price determination to delivery, the representatives — most of whom are Greek themselves — work with Block’s clients on pretty much every aspect of the orders. With access to mentors, it’s akin to a paid internship of sorts, with students making commissions on their sales. Campus rep programs have exploded in recent years, with several T-shirt companies like Block’s utilizing them, but even global brands like Victoria’s Secret Pink and ASOS rely on them to acquire college customers.
Block tries to keep the prices for his T-shirts around $15 and sweatshirts around $30. Fraternities want to spend less, usually around $10, which is why sororities make up more of his company’s business. Block says his best reps “do about $100,000” in sales each year, noting there’s still plenty of room to grow. “We're not on those million-dollar campuses, but we know they exist.” Roberts says Geneologie’s biggest customers are the large state schools that have high percentages of the student body in Greek life: Ole Miss (48%), Auburn University (39%), and University of Alabama (39%).
As with any licensing business, some profit is lost to royalty fees. According to Block, most Greek organizations outsource their licensing needs to a company called Affinity Consulting. “At the end of every quarter,” Block says, “we have to send Affinity individual reports for each organization we work with and pay them 8.5 percent, and then Affinity distributes that or the majority of that back to the national groups.” So for every $10 spent by a chapter member, 85 cents of that goes right back to her sorority.
Wearing letters does comes with its own set of restrictions. In my sorority, we were instructed to make sure our hair was done (meaning either straightened or curled — never thrown up in a messy bun) and we were wearing makeup whenever we were representing the house, although it wasn’t strictly enforced.
Gregg recalls an anecdote about a girl who was seen buying a pregnancy test in CVS while wearing sorority letters. Her chapter’s leadership used it as a cautionary tale about why girls needed to be careful when donning their letters, since whatever you do in them reflects back on the whole house. Gregg remembers feeling bad for the girl in the story, that the lesson there was about collective reputation rather than being there for a sister who might be going through a tough time. (It’s perhaps also relevant to mention that in some houses, pregnancy is allegedly grounds for requiring a member to take “early alumna” status, which dates back to bylaws put in place before it was socially acceptable for women to have sex outside of marriage.)
While the matching event T-shirts weren’t as much of a phenomenon in Byrd’s NPHC sorority, similar guidelines were still in place. “If you’re going to put on your letters, you’re going to have on a nice pair of pants, you’re going to have your makeup and hair done,” she says. “Whenever our letters are on we want to look the best and I think that carries for all National Pan-Hellenic Council sororities.”
In my experience, though we were encouraged to look our best while representing the chapter, the only time punitive action was taken was if a member was wearing her letters while breaking the law (aka drinking underage) or otherwise behaving crudely, thus violating bylaws under the “Human Dignity” provision. “Even if you’re over 21,” Bilbrey succinctly puts it, “don’t do embarrassing shit in your letters,” and especially don’t get caught. A house’s reputation as being fun and up-for-anything was important, but staying out of legal trouble and avoiding negative media attention was paramount.
For my sorority, the most fraught subject around T-shirts was not when to wear them, but rather what size they were worn in. It’s fairly well-documented that sorority girls have a penchant for wearing shirts that are one to three sizes too large for them. For example, I’m a 2 or 4 in most clothes, maybe even a 0 in a top, and I ordered medium or large T-shirts. In the South, the oversized shirt with Nike running shorts (norts), sneakers, tube socks, and Ray-Bans combo is so common that it’s often referred to as the “srat” or, more offensively, the “sorostitute” uniform. In the North, swap the shorts for black leggings, the sneakers for Ugg boots, and add a North Face jacket or Patagonia pullover, and you have the same stereotype.
The general thinking is that by wearing a gigantic shirt, the wearer appears smaller in comparison. Gigantic shirts are also more comfortable, good for sleeping in, and have the added benefit of covering your pelvic region in the winter when leggings are the default bottom. Avoiding the tight T-shirt look was so important to other members in my chapter that they were willing to go to extreme lengths to make the oversize “rule” adhered to.
I remember chapter meetings where girls would stand up and say, “Unless you are *insert name of exceptionally petite sister here,* you should be ordering mediums, at least.” On a few occasions, girls would go into the communally editable Google Doc where T-shirt orders were placed and actually change sizes if they thought someone ordered too small. There was also a fair amount of outright stealing and size-swapping once the shirts were delivered.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, managing T-shirts takes a considerable amount of time, which is why Greek organizations elect a person to handle the task. When Bilbrey was T-shirt chair for her Chi Omega chapter at the College of Charleston, she spent six to seven hours a week orchestrating tee-related operations — from working on the design, liaising between the chapter and the vendor, and actually distributing the shirts, which was often problematic. She recalls having to mitigate T-shirt-related drama (complaints about fit, stealing, and the like) by either having the company print girls’ names directly on the shirt labels, or by placing them on assigned chairs in the chapter room before meetings began.
“We had Comfort Colors,” says Bilbrey. “It was the least expensive option. That’s all I ordered, and we would always get them medium. Like bigger than you needed them, so they’d cover your shorts when you went to class. You don’t know, if you’re ordering for the first time. You’re like ‘Ooh, I’m a small.’ No, you’re wrong. Think again.”
It’s not that sororities intentionally seek to stamp out individuality among their members, it’s just that at 18 or 19, one’s sense of self is only so sturdy. There are certainly degrees to which the hive-mindedness of the group will take effect; the pressure for approval from the other members and the desire for the organization to succeed will find ways, however indirect, to seep into your consciousness. You’ll find yourself voting daily in a Lilly Pulitzer contest you don’t really care about. Or you’ll donate to the cool fraternity’s philanthropy event because your sisters really want to have a social with them in the spring. It’s inevitable.
As Gregg told me, “You say, ‘We're going to be the different sorority,’ but then you hang out with all these other sorority girls and you start getting the same values. It's really hard not to get sucked into that as a collective. I don't know if you can be different.”
For most women who join sororities, membership in the group becomes less important over the years — classwork gets more intense, you make friends outside of the sorority through other, more interest-based activities. Most girls will move out of the chapter’s house by their senior year, if not before. Your college life gets bigger, and the sorority has to take a back seat to make room for other things.
“When you’re a pledge, you wear huge letters to let everyone know you’re in a sorority,” says a sorority member quoted in Arthur’s paper. “But as you get older, you don’t need to advertise your status anymore.” As girls develop their identity on campus, the sorority becomes a fraction of that identity.
But it never goes away, even if the too-big, brightly colored T-shirts do.
“Even now,” says Kline, “I'm up here in New York, and there's beautifully dressed women all around me, but when I'm thinking, ‘What do I want to wear to this upcoming wedding? Or what should I wear to work?’ I'm going to my sorority sisters' Instagrams and seeing what they've worn to weddings and to work and stuff, because I think they're really stylish.”
However silly that pledge of lifelong commitment feels on bid night, when you’re surrounded by women you just met a couple hours ago, it has a way of coming true.
Stephanie Talmadge is Racked’s newsletter editor.