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The allure of sleepaway camp is burned into American culture. The Parent Trap and Wet Hot American Summer may have been helped by the charm of a teenage Lindsay Lohan and a dreamy young Paul Rudd, but their true roots were in the parent-free dreamworld of summer camp, a magical place where teenagers collided in tidy uniforms whose sameness signaled camaraderie. Everyone belonged — at least upon first glance.
Attending sleepaway camp requires a certain level of financial privilege. My own summer camp, which I attended from 2006 to 2013, attempted to make the experience more attainable by offering scholarships, but it’s important to acknowledge that “camp kids” are a niche social group. Those who can afford to rack up summers away, pile up friendship bracelets, and reap the ensuing social cred are largely the people who can claim camp as an identity.
And aesthetics are a visual representation of underlying social currents. West Coast summer camps (like mine) are a little more undone than their stereotypical Eastern cohort. Instead of participating in boat races, the oldest campers marched in the San Francisco AIDS Walk and spent the mornings farming the co-ed Jewish camp’s small kibbutz in vintage Levi’s overalls. The dress code was California cool, and the only knee socks came from American Apparel.
There may have been no official uniform, but trends still ruled. Rainbow brand flip-flops reigned supreme until the American Camping Association banned open-toe sandals at camps nationwide in favor of more secure footwear. The mandate was met with outrage, but Tevas soon became the new It shoe, years before that Opening Ceremony collab.
The camp’s most significant dress code applied to Friday nights. Dressing up to celebrate Shabbat is part of Jewish tradition, and our camp requested that everyone wear white. The single hue represented a unified camp community, but it also posed a significant problem when packing: Nobody owns eight white sundresses. Sharing was the only real solution.
When I was 13, my cabin did away with any semblance of ownership and created a communal closet. We shared everything from secrets to shampoo. By the end of the summer, every single girl would have worn my favorite blue dress. I didn’t mind. Contributing clothing meant access to the closet ecosystem and escape from having to repeat outfits. At camp, the free exchange of clothing meant that our outfits were rooted in social — not economic — capital. Friendships provided access to trendy items for girls who didn’t pack their own, and the girls who packed the best clothes had undeniable social clout.
The camp schedule provided a whole extra hour to get clean and dressed for Shabbat, but we would expand this time by skipping the end of the weekly ultimate Frisbee game. We blasted songs by Britney Spears and Chris Brown out of tinny iHome speakers and packed around the mirrors in giggly tableaus. Even then, we knew that getting ready with friends is always the best part of going out.
Our counselors’ age created an undeniable aura of coolness. They taught us what seemed like the hidden secrets of womanhood: how to apply liquid eyeliner evenly, how to find your cheekbones and use them as a guide to dust on bronzer, how to spray perfume in your hair and disperse the scent with carefully deployed hair flips. This routine became ritual, especially because there were boys to impress. Our cabin always smelled like Tease, a vanilla body spray from Victoria’s Secret. Someone had stationed an overpoweringly sugary bottle on the bathroom sink, and I carefully copied its label onto the back of an extra envelope. These were secrets to take back to school in the fall.
The end of the summer always came as a surprise. Blackberries ripened, and the youngest campers rushed to pick the heavy fruit before it rotted on the vine. The days unfolded languidly, but the weeks piled up with frightening velocity, like a set of waves hitting the shore in rapid succession. The laws of physics, it turned out, still applied in August.
By this point, the concept of ownership was completely eroded. A succession of bodies had created new memories in the blue dress, and their presence lingered. The fabric smelled of sweat and Tease and coconut tanning oil, and I did not recognize it as my own. Plucking it out of the swirling nest of clothing that lined our cabin was like hammering the final nail in summer’s coffin.
I spent the better part of an hour searching the cabin’s largest, central pile for a single bralette among slap bracelets and contraband candy wrappers. Reclaiming everything that was once mine was a quixotic task, and some things I gave up on finding. I traded a couple items with my friends, but my duffel bags were always a bit lighter at the end of the summer than when I arrived.
Exiting camp felt like being herded, or swimming in a school of fish. All campers were sent off in T-shirts emblazoned with the camp’s logo, designed to help keep track of so many children. The shirts also doubled as wearable yearbooks, as campers used colorful Sharpies to scrawl badges of friendship: AIM screen names and inside jokes. Our clothing itself was proof that we had gone away, returning somehow changed.