The event, titled the “Marine Debris Fashion Show,” was a design competition featuring outfits made from trash commonly found in oceans. Hosted by the Reimagining Experiential Education and Fabrication (REEF) Makerspace and the Lemann Program on Creativity and Entrepreneurship, the show was a highlight of 2023 Arts First Festival, Harvard’s annual public showcase of campus creativity, produced by the Office for the Arts.
The outfits were designed by students, who were given free rein with only one hard rule: None of their materials could be purchased new.
Makerspace Director Christine Braun, who organized the event alongside Director of Creativity and Entrepreneurship Sam Magee, said she hoped the show inspired creativity and also spread awareness about different waste streams.
“A lot of focus is on plastics, but we have fibers from fast fashion polluting our rivers and oceans,” Braun said. “I’m just hoping our audience members take a look at what our participants created, and, through our messaging, are a little bit more conscious of where our waste is going.”
For Harvard Divinity School student Ellen Vaillancourt, participating in the show was an opportunity to shine a light on the negative impact of polyester and poly-blend textile waste on the environment when fast fashion-clothing is thrown away.
“Clothing producers and consumers must intimately understand that there’s no such place as ‘away,’” Vaillancourt said.
Her outfit, titled “Water Is Life,” featured a voluminous white skirt of plastic and bubble wrap, hung with blue polyester fishing ropes resembling jellyfish, and draped in fishing nets. The bodice was decorated with pink and brown rope arranged to depict salmon spawning. The model also wore a white Baroque-style wig, a reference to colonial exploitation. Vaillancourt collected many of her materials while beachcombing in Revere and Winthrop.
“I think it’s so hidden, the devastation that is happening, the exploitation of human beings, mostly the labor of women and girls,” Vaillancourt said. “Nobody really understands that most of what is produced today, 70 percent is made of polyester or a poly-blend, that it doesn’t break down, or it takes an awfully long time, the amounts of toxins that it leaves, the degradation of the soil and the water. Ultimately, we’re eating our shirts.”