Style Thief: Your Camp Counselor From 1999

My favorite thing as a child between the ages of eight and 14 was going to summer camp (to be honest, it’s also my favorite part of being an adult). It was like school, but instead of teachers, I got to be around cool teenagers who laughed at my jokes and all seemed to know how to play the ukulele. My favorite part of camp, though, was always That One Counselor. You know, the one with all the counselor and camper friends and the super shiny hair? I had one of those counselors. My heart soared when she hugged me at the end of the summer, and I made her promise to write to me (she didn’t). I now recognize that I had a big gay crush on a super cool, also probably gay, teenager. Which makes sense. I’m gay.

There’s something really great about summer camp counselor fashion. For a wardrobe that seems to consist mainly of old camp t-shirts, cutoff shorts, and strappy sandals destined to leave tan lines, it works! Maybe it’s the confidence that’s worn with it. Maybe it’s the fact that the clothes are so simple, that they make room for great personalities to shine through. Whatever it was about them, I tried my hardest to copy them in hopes that I too would be as cool as the counselors wearing them. It did not work (I was a terribly awkward child with braces and asthma, but I have grown into a super cool adult). So as summer nears, maybe you want to pay homage to the first girl who you wanted to be just like. Well, this is for you, pal.

Tops

First and foremost for a camp counselor is comfort. You’re running after hordes of children all day — going to the pool, the dining hall, the ropes course — and you don’t want to feel constricted. Sometimes, you might need to get fancy when parents are coming around, and a polo shirt is always good for that. A casual hoodie or cardigan is a must for chilly nights by the campfire.


Bottoms

Listen: Pants in the summer are a mistake. I don’t care who you are; love yourself and show a little knee this year. You deserve it! I went to a lot of church camp, so my counselors all wore what might be considered “modest” clothing, hence my choices here; but if you want to show more leg, do it! My favorite part of sleepaway camp was the camp dance, because everyone would put on that one dress their mom packed them and stand around the basketball court drinking our first sodas in three weeks. A nice denim dress or skirt can fancy your outfit up a bit while still being extremely utilitarian for all the stuff you’ve gotta get done.


Swimwear

Counselors wear one pieces. It’s a thing. I felt like my one pieces made me look like a nerd, but theirs were always so cool??? Turns out, you too can have a cool one piece! Get something bright and colorful or something with a witty pun on it, and you’re good as gold.


Accessories

The number one accessory to make this style work is a backpack. Camp counselors are notorious for wearing backpacks containing literally everything, literally all of the time. Forgot your sunscreen? Got some. Need a band-aid? Here’s a plain one and a neon one. Have some contraband gum. Here’s an extra friendship bracelet I keep around. (Counselor backpacks were magical; perhaps that’s why I’m a backpack person instead of a tote person or a purse person.) Once you’ve got your backpack, you can accessorize with athletic socks, friendship bracelets, temporary tattoos, and summer-themed earrings. It’s a look, friends. Go for it.


Shoes

Your shoes should help keep you on your feet all day, so comfortable soles and/or ankle straps are almost always a must. These summer shoes say, “I’m adventurous and also practical” — and honestly, what’s more attractive than a person who wears sensible shoes?

Friends, I hope this was nice for you. I can’t wait to hear about all your summer camp crushes of yesteryear!

Ari is a 20-something artist and educator. They are a mom to two cats, they love domesticity, ritual, and porch time. They have studied, loved, and learned in CT, Greensboro, NC, and ATX.

Ari has written 323 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. This is amazing and perfect. I call my overall style “lazy femme” and I recognize a lot of my summer looks in these outfits, even as a 27 year old and not a 17 year old camp counselor. In college as a senior I was an RA for freshman and one of them pointed out that I had been wearing a plain spaghetti strap tank top that 100% was meant as an undershirt as one of my go to shirts all year long. It didn’t even occur to me that was weird? That real styled blouses and shirts were a thing I maybe should be wearing.

          • Yes camp uniforms!! Mine was all blue: light blue polo on top and navy shorts on the bottom. With knee socks! I got there thinking no one would actually wear the knee socks but apparently it made you cool? Shows what I know about style.

            I definitely went back in my mind to camp years when I was first coming out like “Ohhhh…her, and her, and omg HER” lolol

  2. Oh man, the camp counselor crush was so real. I loved camp SO HARD, I went for two weeks a year starting after 4th grade and continuing until summer after senior year of high school (our counselors were mostly college age.) I still have a deep and abiding love of the place at 40, and can’t wait for my niece and nephew to go when they are older. (Brother and sister were both also devoted campers.) I also had my first kiss with a boy at camp, which was a little confusing to tweenage me, as I didn’t realize bi was a thing and HOW COULD I BE HAVING ALL THESE *FEELINGS*?!

    I also have one of the really rad camp counselor crushes to thank for introducing me to the Indigo Girls in 1988, so there’s that. She had a bootleg of a bunch of the songs that would be on the eponymous album that she somehow acquired while doing some Earth First! activism, and she played the hell out of it. When the album dropped the next year, it was my first experience with being the way-too-cool hipster, “Yeah, it’s great, I’ve heard it…”

    • Also like any older female who introduced me to queer-coded music was somehow always gay in my my mind… I would chalk it up to a HUGE SIGN that x listened to torianifionaaimeeetc

  3. I definitely needed this. I’m now thinking of my shiny-haired counselors of yesteryear, remember tipping my plastic bowler hat to a particularly lovely brunette beauty at the final camp performance and catching her eye. I was seven, so I’m sure she was IN TO IT.

  4. Oh man, Alaina, this brought back SOOOO many memories (both good and bad). I went to overnight summer camp for 8 years, and I swear I had a different counselor crush each summer. This is too real.

  5. Camp is always in style! And if anyone wants to relive their camper days I direct a sleepaway camp and am still looking for a few Unit Counselors and Unit Leaders for this upcoming summer in NY.

  6. This makes me so sad that I never got to go to summer camp. I grew up non-religious so there weren’t church related camps and I was always too poor to go anyways. I did watch a lot of movies where they went to camp, though, and inevitably wanted to be/kiss the pretty camp counselor girls, so there’s that.

  7. I was a camp counselor, circa 1988!

    Looking through my old photos, I do not look as cool as I remember feeling – but I swear i felt so great wearing a one piece bathing suit and cutoff jean shorts.

    And I had my first serious crush on a girl at church camp (not that 15 year old baby bi me had any idea what those feelings were).

  8. Here in Ireland, we dont go to camp, we go to a thing called the Gaeltacht, where we live in an irish speaking region for month to learn Irish,attend classes and do activities. We live in a local persons house with about 10 other girls and we have an older girl who is there to take care of us. When i went, I was 16, and I was so in love with the girl who took care of us. She would help me straighten my hair for the ceilis(dances) and i can still remember the perfume she used to wear….what a time!

  9. Here I was thinking about getting a one piece since I sunburn so easily it seems like a good idea to cover up as much as possible and I thought it would be dorky. But now I see they can be fashionable too!

  10. My summer camp was a day camp and one of the items of the day was outside play. Which is nice in theory but hellish in practice when it’s a humid 95 that feels like 101 on account of outside is a merciless cement parking lot with no shade and you’re being commanded to attempt kickball.
    So these little buddies right here was EVERYBODY’S accessory

    The counselors were like that annoyed, nearly apathetic baby sitter who didn’t give a shit about you just money, and for you to siddown, shudaup an’ stay outta her hair.
    Also they’d confiscate your gum and chew it right in front of you. Not as a taunt or display of power, because we were bugs beneath their notice. You don’t waste time or energy taunting a bug.
    So yeah Alaina I did kinda want to be like them, to be that powerful and not give a fuck.

    Golly all my feminine role models or inspirations growing up were kind of stone cold bitches now that I think of it :P
    No wonder my masculine side is my softer side.

  11. I never went to sleepaway camp because my family couldn’t afford it, but I went to circus camp every summer in the city and boy did I have a crush on this one counselor (who was probably 15 at the time and I was 10 or 11, so I thought she was so grown up and cool). It was definitely a big gay crush.

    I’m definitely open to dressing like a camp counselor, though. Get me into a ringer tee and a pair of overall shorts and watch me unicycle into all the girls’ hearts.

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