It’s peak summertime during a pandemic, which means like all elder millennials who don’t have the energy to socialize or simply forgot how, I spent my weekend happily sitting next to the A/C, ordering mozzarella sticks and losing all sense of time in the latest TikTok craze, #bamarush.
The viral hashtag, which has 221.4 million views and counting as of Sunday night, unlocks a portal into the world of Southern sorority recruitment and panhellenic society at the University of Alabama, where from Aug. 7-14, 2,000-plus women convened to take part of the rush process. There, the mostly freshman hopefuls got their first taste of Greek life formalities, and in the age of TikTok, documented their individual #OOTDs along the way.
The posts reveal a rare and real glimpse into the traditionally secretive social organizations and the personalities that want to be part of it. The level of dedication that outsiders have for #bamarush, however, is just as intriguing. Some #bamarush watchers have started keeping spreadsheets tracking which sorority each “rush girl” receives a bid from. Others are posting Tuscaloosa weather updates because good heavens if the women must trek from Tutwiler, the dorm where many live, to the McMansions on Sorority Row in their Dolce Vita Paily square-toe heels.
Despite #bamarush being pure gold for hate-watchers (their mispronunciation of “Chanel” may draw the ire of fashionistas), a few rush girls, including Makayla a.k.a @whatwouldjimmybuffettdo and Emma a.k.a @dollypartonwannabe02, have garnered a supportive fanbase rooting them on .
If I was a betting woman, I’d say that executives at Netflix and MTV are taking note, not to mention the merchandise planners at Spirit Halloween.
But if you would have told me last year—during a summer that flooded our social media feeds with bold examples of activism to end systemic racism—that in 2021 videos chronicling the highs, lows and fashion of mostly white women with blonde hair and big dreams attempting to join predominately white sororities at a historically white institution would be trending, I would have said, “read the room.” It’s even more mind-boggling when you realize the hashtag is tied to a Greek life system that formally ordered sororities to desegregate as recent as 2013.
Nevertheless, here we are 16 months into a cruel pandemic that teased us with a few optimistic weeks of semi-normalcy only to swing back around with hospitals at zero capacity and looming restrictions. But just in time, TikTok has gifted us with yet another escapist outlet and pandemic aesthetic to dissect and unpack: #bamarush.
The #bamarush starter pack
If there’s any doubt that fashion takes center stage at Rush Week, just check out the Alabama Panhellenic Association’s website. An entire section is dedicated to what to wear to recruitment, placing a strong emphasis on “nicer” dresses, heels and wedges. The #bamarush look is unique, however, in that it isn’t influenced by Gen Z ‘it’ items like tennis skirts, mini purses or coordinating sets, and wholly unconcerned with appearing cheugy.
It’s no surprise that the videos, like the fashion, are formulaic, too. Each PNM—Greek lingo for “potential new member”—stands before the camera in her dorm room and states what stage of rush week she’s dressing for. For instance, Day 1 of sisterhood calls for a dress and heels, while Day 1 of philanthropy, a time when sororities share how they give back to the community and perform “door dances” (Google it, the words to describe it don’t exist), calls for a more casual dress code.
Casual looks include FP Movement by Free People’s nylon shorts with a wide waistband, tiered ruffle mini-skirts or scalloped hem shorts that are paired with one of several rush-themed T-shirts provided by the Alabama Panhellenic Executive Council during convocation.
Dresses are mostly solid white, pink and blue, though some chase LoveShackFancy’s ultra-feminine romantic vibe, which may be the gold standard in #bamarush formal wear. Day dress silhouettes nod to last year’s nap dress trend with puffed sleeves and stretch smocked bodices, but the majority are figure-hugging with details like cascading ruffles or a single strap. Formal Affair’s strapless ruffled bodice dresses and rompers are a favorite.
Dolce Vita braided strap heels, Steve Madden block heel sandals, Golden Goose glittery sneakers, Gianni Bini wrap heels and colorful kicks by Hoka One One are among the #bamarush footwear staples.
PNMs also carry “rush bags” which are often preneLOVE’s neoprene printed totes filled with touchup essentials like mints (gum is not allowed), makeup, deodorant, masks and a towel to sit on while they wait outside houses for their appointments. Some pack a pair of Birkenstocks to swap into once their face-to-face meetings are over.
Other key accessories span statement chandelier earrings, Shein rings, and Longchamp totes to heaps of Kendra Scott jewelry.
Scott, who ranked No. 47 on the Forbes 2020 list of America’s self-made women and stepped down as CEO of her eponymous company earlier this year, responded to the flood of #bamarush shout-outs with her own TikTok video. “I am absolutely obsessed with all your incredible looks… I can’t wait to see what university is going to be next,” she said.
Boon to local businesses
Along with brands, PNMs name where they purchased pieces of their OOTD, referring to a pair of sandals as T.J. Maxx or a necklace as Francesca’s.
The name “Lulu’s” is mentioned frequently, though in the case of sporty shorts it’s unclear if they mean Lululemon or Lulus, the online women’s fashion store. It’s less ambiguous when they’re pointing to a dress. Lulus, the e-commerce store, boasts 544 styles in its “sorority rush dress” edit.
On the website, Lulus states: “You may have found the perfect chapter, but are you still looking for a dress that will make you stand out above the rest? Look no further than our curated collection of trendy, stylish, and (most of all) cute, sorority recruitment dresses, rush dresses, and initiation dresses at Lulus! Whether you’re trying to make the best impression with our lightweight and flowy mini and midi dresses or finding the perfect dresses to match your Big or Little, we have the best selection of affordable white sorority dresses and colorful dresses to choose from…So take a break from stressing, because Lulus has your back in helping you show off how truly amazing you are! You got this, girl!”
The attention to #bamarush is having a halo effect on local businesses like Pants Store, the family-owned retailer located just 4 minutes from the university. Established in 1950 primarily as a pants retailer, the business has evolved into a five-store Alabama chain with a robust online segment offering men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, footwear, accessories, and gifts.
Michael Gee, who co-owns the business with his brother John, said the student population has always been a big key to the success of Tuscaloosa store, but “it’s definitely big time when they’re buying for rush.”
This year, however, turned out to be unlike any other thanks to its new TikTok fandom. “It’s been crazy. It is absolutely zonkers,” Gee said. “We’ve seen a 400 percent increase in the last two weeks in our website traffic.” Additionally, the store gained 10,000 followers on TikTok in one week and partnered with Makayla a.k.a @whatwouldjimmybuffettdo to promote gift ideas to her 109.7K followers. Not too shabby for an account that launched just four months prior at the recommendation of Gee’s 14-year-old daughter. “All of a sudden it’s like all the hard work paid off immediately,” he said.
Though 2021 rush week is scaled back compared to pre-pandemic schedules, the fact that more in-person events were on the calendar this year was a welcome change after 2020, when rush mostly took place over Zoom. Dressing head-to-toe is back. Dresses, skirts and women’s sneakers are among Pants Store’s current bestsellers. “They’re dressing up. They’re trying to get out of their loungewear and [back to] looking fancy again,” Gee said.
Though Gee is eager to “ride the wave” and to continue to work with students as ambassadors for the store, its newfound TikTok glow doesn’t negate the fact that Pants Store has a laser sharp focus on what its clientele wants. Whereas retailers large and small have lost their point of differentiation by trying to offer everything to everyone, Pants Store is stocked with the all the essentials for Greek life and student living, including printed coolers, Hydro Flask bottles and Vici Patches that help curb hangovers.
“There’s no doubt that there were freshmen girls on that campus that saw TikTok and were [swayed] to come see us at our store,” Gee said. “Business has been through the roof the past, you know, 7 to 10 days. And we feel like once these freshmen girls walked in our store, we’ve got them for four years.”
If TikTok users were enamored with PNM’s rush OOTDs, wait until they begin to post their looks for football season. Just don’t expect team sweatshirts and wide-leg jeans. This is the South, after all.
“Game day is huge,” Gee said. “Those girls pour in on a Thursday and Friday for an outfit for the weekend.”
Pants Store serves this occasion by offering a variety of clear handbags with on-trend crossbody shapes that meet the security requirements of Bryant–Denny Stadium, the home field of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, as well as deep range of fun and flirty tops, skirts and dresses for pre- and post-game festivities.
“They dress up, they show out, they’re still doing their OOTD,” he said. “And we feel like that will push right into game day this fall.”