Move-in day is stressful for any college student, but for Savannah Hulme, a freshman at the University of Mississippi, the to-do list is considerably more exhaustive: There are custom-built shutters — hand-scribed by her dad to create a rustic effect — to be installed on the doors of her closet; there are ruffled curtains and string lights to be hung around her bed; and there's a brand-new sofa and two wooden trunks that need to be hauled in. The finishing touch comes in the form of a glittered cow skull courtesy of her mom — an ode to her family's Texan roots.
This approach to dorm decorating may seem a bit excessive (not to mention expensive) for someone fresh out of high school, but according to Hulme, it's nothing out of the ordinary for students at Ole Miss, a colloquial name for the college. "Out of a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of effort, I'd rate myself a 7," she tells Refinery29. "There's a girl in another hall that cut laminated flooring on the ground. That's a little extra." All in all, the move-in process took three days, and she's admitted to shelling out about $1,000 on the decor. Most of her friends here have spent a similar amount, with some room furnishings racking up to $2,000 in total.
Hulme's assessment is by no means an exaggeration in her neck of the woods: Last year, a tweet depicting two University of Mississippi freshmen's lavish dorm room — decked out in golden curtains and tufted headboards — went viral. Lindy Goodson and Abby Bozeman, the two students featured, have since become well-known around the campus, with many incoming students seeing this as an indication that they need to step up their game. "I remember reading the story and thinking, Okay, this is the college I'm going to and this is what they do with their dorms — I really have to go the whole nine yards," says Hulme.
In fact, many students — particularly those from Mississippi — would go as far as enlisting an interior decorator. The room that drew significant attention from the media was designed by Dawn Thomas, owner of After Five Designs, a Jackson, MS-based decorating business. Outfitting college dorms is not Thomas' bread-and-butter, but it's the project that's garnered her the most interest since she started doing it 11 years ago. Reviews of her company on Houzz have pegged her decorating fee in the ballpark of $1,000 to $9,000.
In the last two years, she's noticed a sharp uptick in dorm-related requests, and has attributed it to the proliferation of social media inspiration. "These girls have been on Pinterest since they were in high school, they're seeing what the interior stores are doing, they're watching Real Housewives — the girls from 10 years ago didn't know any of that," she says. "These girls know what they want now and want to be more involved in creating the look."
For Hulme, social media does play a part in why she's invested so much time and energy into her room. "My mom and I definitely feel pressured to make it what an Ole Miss room needed to look like," she says. "The next day after move-in, you'll see dorm pictures all over Twitter and Instagram, and that's all people will talk about the next week." After posting photos of her Texas-inspired room on Instagram, she's noticed an increase in followers, and girls have come up to her offering compliments on her room. "It sparks conversation with people, and it's way easier to make a connection with someone when they remember seeing your room on Instagram."
Freshmen Chelsea Harris and Taylar Richardson see the competitive dorm-decorating trend as a reflection of the school's larger-than-life spirit.
"Ole Miss is known as the 'Harvard of the South' and everyone just goes all out on Game Days: Girls wear heels and dresses to tailgate parties, and boys are in sports coats and ties," says Richardson. "It's a college where everything is a little bit over-the-top, and I think people just want to carry that luxury over to where they sleep."
The rite of passage of moving away from home for college and getting a fresh start also contributes to the urge to establish a more refined look. "My childhood bedroom doesn't look like this at all," says Harris.
For all the attention these rooms receive on social media, not all of it has been positive: Commenters on Twitter and the BuzzFeed piece about Goodson and Bozeman were quick to call out the privilege involved in shelling out four figures to deck out a room that needs to be vacated within a year. The practicality of plush, light-colored decor for party-prone college students was also questioned in concerned think pieces over how put-together these rooms are.
The headlines carry an overarching tone that this signifies a socioeconomic shift in the college experience, but in the grand scheme of things, the race to have the most Instagrammable dorm room ever is mostly a quirky subculture unique to campuses in the Deep South. "My friends in Texas who go to schools in the state have cute rooms, but not all this hoopla in it," says Hulme. Both Harris and Richardson have also admitted that they probably wouldn't have put in all this hard work if they went to another university.
Although Thomas has declined to provide a quote on how much she charges for her services, she's passionate about communicating that not all of the materials she uses come with a hefty price tag. "I've done rooms that cost $500, and I've done rooms that added up to $2,000," she says. "Decorating doesn't have to do with wealth: It is about creating an expensive look." According to her, the most important thing about decorating a dorm is picking the right color combos — and having roommates who are on the same page about how much to spend.
Richardson and Harris' approach helps prove her point: The pair did not hire a decorator, but instead scored good deals from HomeGoods, T.J. Maxx, Target, and Marshalls. "We don't want to spend an arm and a leg, but want it to look like we did," says Harris. "My aunt helped us create string lights around the vanity from mason jars, and our coffee table was a DIY project." The thriftiness seemed to have no bearings on the reception of the room: Photos posted on Harris' Twitter feed have already garnered over 330 favorites.
For what it's worth, a good chunk of the furniture in these rooms will make another appearance on social media next year. Many rising sophomores at the college are in the habit of reselling their furniture and headboards to the incoming freshman class as they move to apartment buildings. And, once you've made it through your first year, some of the pressure is off. "The sophomores and juniors we see don't put in as much effort — they mostly just decorate their doors," says Richardson.