You’re Never Fully Dressed Without Your Letters

Zumba with Pi Phi 2

If someone would have told me freshman year at NYU that I would eventually join a sorority, I would have laughed out loud. I am the first to admit that it is easy to judge sororities or a person based on how they have been represented in the media. Despite my hesitations, I decided to join a sorority at the beginning of my junior year at NYU. As a member of Pi Beta Phi, I have been involved and participated in various philanthropy events to raise money and awareness for literacy, which is the philanthropy Pi Bet Phi raises money for. Each semester we hold numerous events that allow people to come together and spend money on a good cause.

On Saturday, March 7th I attended the “Zumba with Pi Phi” event in which we charged people $10, in exchange for an hour of Zumba. In addition to Zumba, people had the opportunity to participate in a raffle that included free classes at high-end gyms, and other wellness packages. There were a lot of incentives to participate and each raffle ticket only costed $3. Instead of only inviting people in our sorority, we typically invite all walks of life, within Greek life and outside of Greek life. However on that day, most of the women who attended happened to be a member of Greek life. Our philanthropy events allow different social groups to mix with one another, which in turn creates an opportunity for different groups to influence one another.

After getting initiated into a sorority, each person receives ‘letters’, which is typically a t-shirt with the three letters of one’s organization. For some individuals, these letters define them and can be used to identity someone in the larger Greek community at NYU. Personally, I would consider sororities at NYU as a minority or subculture in the larger community. It is a subculture in the sense that when I someone wears their letters, they can be judged by other NYU students, who are known for being individuals. NYU isn’t a typical school where people feel pressured to be a part of a group, or need to join Greek life to have a social life. We are individuals, but for some reason some people think that by joining a sorority you lose this individuality.

“Zumba with Pi Phi” took place from 2:00-3:30pm in Kimmel 914. Roughly seventy women gathered to Zumba for literacy. Most girls who attended either wore greek letters, Lululemon leggings, Nikes, or something with a name brand. Although most people who attended were in one of the sororities at NYU, there were a few girls from other schools and organizations who attended to support Pi Phi. On the surface this event is a fun philanthropy event that allowed women to come together for a good cause, however under the surface this is a leisure activity merging two worlds together.

Zumba with Pi Phi 3

Caroline (left), Kristina (center), Jocelyn (right)

In the image above, Caroline and Kristina on the left are in Pi Beta Phi, and Jocelyn is on the right, and in Alpha Sigma Tau. The Pi Phi affiliation may seem obvious based on the shirts, however Jocelyn’s jacket makes her affiliation ambiguous, unless someone is familiar with Pi Phi’s symbol. Most of the girls who attended wore a shirt that identified the organization they belong to, however not all girls did. By not wearing their letters, their identity became ambiguous, therefore they could appear as the ‘other’ despite being a part of a community.

In “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fred Davis analyzes how we think about fashion and argues that meanings associated with clothes are unconscious, and many of us might not be aware of the meaning. This applies to the meaning letters signify for each sorority and how they might be meaningless to individuals outside of Greek life. Davis argues that, “the leisure suit that ‘fits in so nicely’ at the outdoor barbecue will connote something quite different when worn to work, especially if you happen not to live in southern California” (151). In relation to this event, sorority letters were appropriate clothes to wear, however they would not be considered appropriate to wear to work. Despite being appropriate to wear to class, the negative connotations surrounding sororities sometimes make me feel like it’s easier to not wear my letters, so that I am not judged.

If you looked at the image below, without having attended the event, one might assume that these girls are three friends who just finished working out. However the two girls on the left are in my sorority and the girl on the right is in another sorority, but at a different school. Davis argues that “fashion’s meaning is always context dependent, making fashion objects undercoded” (150). This makes the relationship with a piece of clothing unstable and open to interpretation. This image illustrates the ambiguity of fashion, more specifically leisure wear and how it’s meaning is dependent on a person’s understanding of the context it’s being used in, or in this case being worn in.

Zumba with Pi Phi

Ipsita (left), Callan (center), Katherine (right)

As leisure wear continues to grow in popularity, leisure wear has become more trendy and certain leisure brands have taken over what it means  to be stylish while working out. In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Thorstein Veblen brings attention to the idea of conspicuous consumption, and the tendency to spend money on luxury goods to show off one’s wealth. In previous generations, a person’s wealth could be measured by the amount of leisure time they had time to pursue non-productive skills. While this is still applicable today, people have the opportunity to show how fashionable and wealthy they are by wearing expensive aerobic wear, such as Lululemon. Veblen argues that most people are driven by just wanting to fit in, and the difference in people’s fashion choices are in relation to who they are trying to fit in with. While this may not be true for all people, it is something that everyone should think about and was evident at this event. Each of my sisters that didn’t wear our letters felt left out for a brief moment, until they were reminded that everyone knows who they are or which sorority they’re in.

Davis, Fred. Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?. Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. Print. 147-58.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. Print.


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