Dress Codes Undone – 2006

Every camp has a dress code. It’s just that at some camps, it’s more formalized than at others. I applaud those camps with a written dress code, such as plain blue shorts and white T-shirts, because established codes equalize social standing, avert materialistic conversations, eliminate stress about what to wear, and allow campers to focus on what’s important, such as making new friends and trying new activities. I also applaud camps where the staff discourage materialism in all its forms, including obsession with certain brands of clothing. Either model works to keep the focus on the experience, not the appearance, of camp.

Sadly, many camps have an unwritten dress code, where name brands rule and a predictable textile-based pecking order is quickly established. Such superficial differences in social standing bring out the worst in children. Add staff reinforcement to the mix, and such informal fashion standards become a recipe for a self-perpetuating, elitist, classist, and, in some cases, sexist culture. Exactly the opposite of what a high quality camp experience is engineered to be.

To solve this perennial peacock problem, parents and camp staff must work together to establish a culture with which everyone is comfortable and no one is left out, regardless of socioeconomic status. Either the camp makes a decision to implement a uniform dress code, or all the adults agree to deemphasize fashion, promote practical garb, forbid provocative styles of dress, and discourage branded clothes that are little more than advertisements. This kind of cultural shift requires clear communication, careful planning, and even more careful packing.

At camps where the guidelines are clearly stated in pre-camp registration materials, and where parents and camp staff work together to advocate for sensible attire, great success has been achieved in the space of a few summers. Camps that had problems with cliques no longer do. Parents who were once deluged with letters demanding care packages with this or that brand of clothing no longer are. And campers who were once defined by their clothing and accessories are now defined by the way they treat others.