Picture this: you're getting ready for prom. You've watched the makeup tutorials, you've picked out the perfect set of heels. You've ordered the corsages, and your limo is on the way. The only thing left to do is finish crafting a dress made out of your homework for some DIY-style activism on your big night.
Wait, what? It sounds unusual at first, but that's actually the inspiring story of 18-year-old Erinne Paisley–the teenager who created a dress made out of paper so that she could donate the money she would have spent on a formal gown to the Malala Fund. For those of you who might not know, the Malala Fund is named for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning teenage activist Malala Yousafsai, whom the Taliban tried to assassinate after she spoke out about the rights of women to be educated. Her story touched Erinne deeply as she thought about the entire idea behind prom–a night that's really a celebration of accomplishing the milestone of education. She was struck by the fact that it's also something that 62 million girls around the world are currently not afforded.
We caught up with the passionate teen by phone, where she took a break from study hall to tell us what inspired our season's favorite prom look so far.
MTV: Hi, Erinne! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today! Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Erinne Paisley: My name is Erinne Paisley, and I’m eighteen years old, just finishing up my grade 12 year at Reynolds Secondary School in Victoria, British Columbia. In September I’m starting at the University of Toronto, and I’m going to be studying international relations, as one of eleven UT national scholars from across Canada this year. I’m so excited about that.
I’m someone who is really interested in the power of social media, and I’ve always been interested in activism ever since I can remember. It’s been my main focus throughout high school. I co-founded an activist group at my school during my grade 10 year called Action Now. I started it with two other students who have now graduated, so I’ve been leading it by myself this year. It’s really a place where people who are interested in making a positive change in the world can share ideas and talk to one another. We’ve been focusing a lot on women’s rights and created a short public service announcement on YouTube called “Cool to Care,” where we asked male students to talk about why feminism is important, and why it’s cool to care about feminism.
MTV: That’s amazing, Erinne. Can you tell me a bit more about the dress that has landed you on all these social media networks? It was made for your graduation, correct?
Erinne Paisley: So, this has been kind of confusing people in the States. “Prom” and “Grad” are called the same things where I’m from. They’re the same idea: people got corsages, people rented limousines, it’s a dinner dance. We just call it "Grad." I was watching some Snapchat stories about prom, and it was just so intense, everyone in limousines. And you know, the original idea behind holding these big events is actually just to celebrate of what you’ve accomplished in getting an education. There are 62 million girls around the world who don’t have that access, who don’t have the ability to access the tools of education. So, I do think a lot of people, including myself, can easily get sidetracked into worrying getting the perfect dress for prom, trying to create the perfect experience, trying to make it picturesque, which I totally get! I mean, I still wore high heels, I still got my hair and makeup done, I had a wonderful, normal experience, and I don’t want to take away from any of that. But I do think there’s a component that’s missing, that it could and should be about passing it on, making sure that we acknowledge that other people don’t have the same opportunities.
There’s this criticism about my generation, you know, that we’re all just lazy, that we don’t care about things, but I actually think it’s the opposite. With social media, we really do have more opportunities to share those ideas. People are searching for a positive bandwagon to jump onto, and this is a perfect example of that. People have been commenting, saying that they’re going to wear prom outfits that they’re already worn before, and they’re going to donate what they would have spent otherwise. I mean, that’s just phenomenal.
MTV: And when it came to styling the actual dress, how did you decide to approach it? Did you take any inspiration from other prom styles out there?
Erinne Paisley: Well, I definitely wanted it to look fashionable. And I wanted to prove, in a way, that you can still look good and have a wonderful experience while also coinciding with sharing a bigger message. I definitely wanted to create a beautiful dress. I designed it on a piece of paper about a month before grad. I actually made a bunch of different drafts of the dress out of old essays first–I wanted it to tie into the idea of “the power of your words,”–but by the time I got to the final draft, I only had pre-calc homework left!
I made the dress in my living room with my best friend’s help over the course of about seven or eight hours. It was a lot of trial and error to make something that looked great but still could hold together and stay on. It was Scotch-taped on the outside and duct-taped on the inside to give it sturdiness. We added a black velvet band at the midriff and for shoulder straps–that was just something I bought at a local craft store–it had a bit of wiring, to give it support. The top and the bottom were meant to be detachable. I originally worried that I might have to take it off and on to get out of cars. I did end up getting taped off because it kept slipping off in the back, and the biggest fear was going to the bathroom! I just didn’t go to the washroom until I took it off. I just tried to block it from my mind!
MTV: And how did people react, when you entered wearing such a statement dress?
Erinne Paisley: Well, I hadn’t told many people what I was doing, and I was pretty nervous in some ways. I worried that there might be negative responses, people wondering what I was doing. Most people were curious and maybe shocked at first, but it was great, having people ask me what it was about and being able to tell them about the Malala Fund. But once it hit online, I’ve been getting such an overwhelmingly positive response online. I’m actually a little shocked by the amount of positivity and how few negative reactions. Really, the only negative comments were about how I misspelled “received.”
MTV: Ha! You know, I was going to ask, but I wasn’t sure how to bring it up...
Erinne Paisley: I wish I could tell you that I did it on purpose! I thought about telling people that I did it ironically somehow, like it was some statement about the power of education and why it’s important, but I just can’t lie! I did misspell it. I wish I had some smooth answer about it being an ironic choice, but my mom was like, “Are you going to remake the dress?” In a way, it’s kind of perfect. The ongoing power of education.
MTV: And now that you’re all over the internet, what has happened since?
Erinne Paisley: I actually was in contact with the Malala Foundation to write a piece for their blog about the dress for their website, and it went up yesterday. It’s been absolutely amazing. I asked the person I was emailing with, “Is there any chance Malala might see this?” and she said, "Yes, Malala reads every single blog post that goes up." So, that was insane for me! I never thought Malala herself would see it. I heard her speak live last year at the first ever WeDay UK–it’s this amazing day where celebrities perform and speak and talk about getting involved positively in your communities, and you can’t buy tickets, you have to earn them through service hours. So I was able to go to London and hear her speak live. It’s such an amazing organization, which has helped make it more “the norm” to care about these sorts of causes.
MTV: And what has happened with the dress now?
Erinne Paisley: I donated $250, initially–grad dresses vary in price, of course, but that seemed about right–and then once the event was over, I just had this paper dress sitting around, and I wondered what I could do with that. So it’s now available for auction online and last I checked, the bid was at $575, but I’m hoping that with the bidding going on for three weeks. It’s cheesy, but every cent really does count, and I’m hoping this can gain some more momentum.
MTV: It’s so clear that you are so passionate about this cause, and I’m so impressed by your drive and inspiration. What would you say to someone who maybe doesn’t understand why this particular cause means so much to you?
Erinne Paisley: Education opens doors to everything you want to do in life, and I think the most important thing that I’ve learned throughout high school is that when you have a passion, you have to invest as much as you can of yourself in order to create positivity in the world. I think it’s completely inhumane that so many people in the world, and especially tragic that many of those are people who are discriminated against based on their sex, don’t have the opportunity to pursue those passions, to contribute to a more positive world.