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Student Fashions Raise Environmentalism’s Style Profile

By Jon Reidel Article published April 26, 2005

Stevia
Beyond hippydom: Senior Stevia Morton says looking good doesn't clash with environmental ideals. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Stevia Morton wanted to create a senior thesis that helped dispel the stereotypical image of environmentalists as poorly dressed hippies. For this to happen, she knew she had to attract the attention of people who might not otherwise pay attention to green issues.

The result — a fashion show with nine students modeling ecologically friendly clothes as a DJ spun discs at the Living/Learning fireplace lounge — seemed to do the trick. About 50 students and faculty attended the April 20 Earth Week event that in some ways was as culturally contradictory as Bob Dylan’s appearance in a Victoria’s Secret commercial.

“Sometimes I feel like people think that if you’re into the environment you automatically dress like a hippy,” Morton says. “I care so much about environmental studies, but I do feel like there are some stereotypes that need to be changed. If you want people to respect you, you have to present yourself a certain way. I wanted to show that you could do that wearing clothes that aren’t damaging to the environment and that aren’t made using child labor.”

Morton’s “eco-fashion show” was one of a number of environmentally related campus events in celebration of Earth Week (April 18-22). Other events included a bio-bus fundraiser concert; book signings and potluck dinners with authors; a fair with live music and arts and crafts; displays of academic projects; a visit from a solar-powered bus; and a soapbox speak-out at Redstone Green.

In some ways, Morton’s fashion show exemplifies the changes in culture since the inagural Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, and how students attempt to draw attention to environmental issues. “If you want to get things done today I think you have to try some non-traditional things,” she says.

Morton says she’s always been interested in fashion, but her passion for environmental issues developed when she transferred to UVM after a year at Emerson College as a dance major. She eventually started looking into the conventional clothing industry and discovered that its use of chemicals, insecticides, herbicides and toxic dyes was extremely damaging. Large amounts of runoff and byproducts are produced, which work their way into the environment and are passed through the food chain, causing adverse health affects, she says.

"'Buying local' is now a common phrase among those concerned about sustainability, but usually we think of it as applied to food," explains Morton's advisor, Stephanie Kaza, associate professor of environmental studies. "Stevia's project raises the possibility of buying local in clothing — something almost impossible in the United States. Her work is on the forefront of what I hope will be an emerging values movement in support of locally grown clothing. Offering this alternative is one way to voice concern for sweatshop labor, corporate control of production and fashion homogenization."

Morton said Burlington is fortunate to have a number of alternative clothing stores and second-hand shops where she buys most of her clothes. For her project, Morton purchased 15 pieces of clothing from local shops that were made sustainably or out of environmentally friendly materials like organic cotton, rayon, silk, linen or hemp.

Morton cut up the clothes and redesigned them based on sketches she drew herself with the guidance of local designer Wylie Garcia. “There’s no reason to make new clothing when there’s so much second-hand fabric out there,” she says.

Now, with a potential space opening at Garcia’s El Studio on Pine Street, Morton is hoping to turn her senior project into a profession.

“Wylie has been a tremendous resource,” Morton says. “I would love to do what she does after graduation.”