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Everyone dressed the same, but Seven Sisters style was radical in its way

When I arrived on the campus of Smith College toward the end of the 1970s, I didn't know that what I encountered there was something called Seven Sisters style. I didn't know it had a name. I just remember feeling as though I had entered a kind of club. Or a cult.

The majority of the students at the all-women's college in Northampton, Mass. dressed the same. They all seemed to have received a memo about wearing khaki pants, polo shirts, Fair Isle sweaters and casual, loafer-like shoes called Top-siders. I clearly hadn't. From Montreal, I was in a determined teenage phase of wanting to be different, even among my Canadian peers. I had a thing for long Laura Ashley skirts worn with battered-up workboots – from Canadian Tire, I believe. Needless to say, I was thought a bit odd and not only because of my accent.

But now, a new book, Seven Sisters Style by Rebecca Tuite, unravels the history of the fashion – a "pioneering … all-American style revolution," she calls it – that began and evolved on the U.S. East Coast at the seven colleges referred to: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley. The Seven Sisters schools – all were single-sex at the time (Vassar is now co-ed and Radcliffe has merged with Harvard) – were founded between 1861 and 1889 to give women what men had at elite Ivy League colleges. As Harper's Bazaar announced in 1935, "[the college girl's] contribution to fashion is as American as Coca– Cola, baseball and hitch-hiking. It is as true to her character as the starched bodice to the Gibson Girl, gray flannels to the Englishman, black to the Frenchwoman."

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The book is an interesting investigation into American cultural ideals, feminism and a style standard for a brand of wholesome sexuality that's still promoted today through brands such as Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and J.Crew. It's what made Ali MacGraw so attractive in Love Story, the 1970 film about a love affair between a brilliant, fast-talking Radcliffe girl and a Harvard rich boy played by Ryan O'Neal.

The look also found expression in Diane Keaton's characters in Annie Hall and Manhattan. Katherine Hepburn, who attended a Seven Sisters college, embodied it, too. And it found its way into literature as well: "Her hands did not twitch at her bottom," Philip Roth wrote in 1959's Goodbye, Columbus, "but the form revealed itself covered or not, under the closeness of her khaki Bermudas. There were two wet triangles on the back of her tiny-collared white polo shirt, right where her wings would have been if she'd had a pair."

Hillary Clinton's style (she is a graduate of Wellesley) still has a Seven Sisters vibe to it. Remember her hairband? I never saw as many headbands, worn as if part of a uniform, as I did when I was at Smith. They came in all colours, as did the Fair Isle sweaters. I once asked a woman across the hall in my dorm to show me her cupboard; there, in neat stacks, were about 30 Fair Isle sweaters, arranged in a rainbow of colour gradations.

Whether I felt admiration, wonder or horror, I cannot recall. But I did feel like an amateur anthropologist who had come across some strange tribe of women who knitted in front of the television (when they weren't hitting the books in the library), had tea in the afternoon and, in the evening, changed into long, patterned Lanz flannel nightgowns with lacetrimmed yokes. Sometimes, late at night, after studying in their rooms, some would gather in the hallways, plopping down on the carpet, their nightgowns billowing like tents over their seated forms.

I never adopted the style, perhaps because it was so much of an upper-class American look that it wasn't part of my identity. It would have been like a North American suddenly deciding to wear a kimono in Japan. In her book, Tuite describes the emergence of a new style on the women's campuses at the turn of the 20th century. The first students at the Seven Sisters had arrived in crinolines and hoopskirts amid cultural reservations about the merit of educating women. Lighter, looser clothing, including shirts, blouses and jackets, some of it inspired by their Ivy League male counterparts, radiated athleticism and agency. The bloomer suit – designed in New York in 1851 by female rights activist Amelia Bloomer, who crusaded unsuccessfully for a woman's right to wear pants in public – re-emerged at the turn of the century on Seven Sisters campuses as sports attire.

Style had become a "powerful statement on the capabilities and character of Seven Sisters women," Tuite writes. From there came Bermuda shorts, plaid skirts, Peter Pan collars, raccoon-fur coats and saddle shoes as the look aimed "to strike a balance between challenging traditional clothing conventions and maintaining … femininity." The most controversial garment was jeans. In 1944, Life magazine ran a photograph of two Wellesley girls in saggy jeans and shirts, provoking national dismay and a response from students at the college: "We do not sympathize with stringy hair and baggy shirts, but we will fight to the death for our right to wear dungarees on the proper occasions."

They knew who they were, what they wanted, what they could learn and what they would wear. The style culture of the Seven Sisters communicated a solidarity of purpose for women to be taken seriously, to have choice. If only I'd known, I might have ditched the workboots.

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Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.

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