SPARTA, Ill. – When Illinois 4-H member Peyton Manker started designing a prom dress made with duct tape in January, the high school senior thought it would be a fun challenge and possibly win her a scholarship. A few months later, the coronavirus spread across the world, closing her school and canceling prom. That's when 18-year-old Peyton knew it could be much more.
“I wanted my dress to be something positive that comes out of the pandemic,” says Peyton.
She had just finished the base design of the ballgown’s cobalt blue and gold accented corset, ruffled top and pocketed skirt when Sparta High School closed in March, leaving Peyton with a lot of time on her hands and a blank canvas.
“I needed a way to channel my energy,” says Peyton. One of the skirt’s first panels features the class of 2020 attending a virtual graduation after her own in-person ceremony was canceled. But the young artist soon realized her project had the potential to tell a bigger story.
“It wasn’t just about my experience; this is about so much more,” says Peyton. “I ended up making this for the whole world.”
The 10-year 4-H member has created a variety of visual arts projects for the annual county 4-H show, including string art, paintings, photography and origami.
“4-H has definitely given me the skills to make this dress,” Peyton says. “I’ve made so many projects in the past that required patience.”
Using 41 rolls of duct tape, she spent more than 400 hours painstakingly tracing original artwork of life during the pandemic, cutting out tiny pieces of tape and transferring them to the dress.
The detailed designs showcase front-line workers, mental health issues as a result of social isolation, and the world figuratively running from the virus.
The dress also has accessories including a “flatten the curve” facemask, a purse shaped like the COVID-19 particle, and a toilet paper accented bouquet as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the shortage. A hair piece that reads “separately together” and an anklet with the words “this too shall pass” are meant to be messages of hope.
After the dress was submitted to the contest, Peyton’s mom shared photos in a Facebook post to encourage friends and family to vote.
To date, the original post has been shared more than 254,000 times. The dress has been featured in the news, on blogs, and social media around the world. And, Peyton has given the Smithsonian Museum permission to include it in their COVID-19 exhibit.
Through it all Peyton, has relied on the public speaking skills she learned in 4-H and encouragement from her fellow Country Crusader 4-H Club members.
“I had so much support from my 4-H club,” Peyton said. “With them behind me, I knew that I could do it.”
The dress also won a blue ribbon at the Randolph County virtual 4-H show, and Peyton will be a delegate to the Illinois State Fair in the visual arts category.
“We are so proud of Peyton," says Lisa Buillion Diaz, Illinois 4-H Assistant Dean and Director. "She is a shining example of how Illinois 4-H youth are inspiring and serving others during this challenging time.”
Peyton’s dress made the top five in the scholarship contest and voting closed July 10. Winners will be revealed later this month. Peyton will attend Southwestern Illinois College in the fall. Although not certain of her career plans, this adventure has inspired her to dig into her creative side.
“After seeing the dress, people have told me about careers I could have in art,” she says. “And now I’m thinking about majoring in that.”
WRITER: Emily Steele, Media Communications Coordinator
ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for the University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and communities to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.
ABOUT ILLINOIS 4-H: Illinois Extension 4-H clubs and activities are open to youth ages 8 to 18. Programs are available in all of Illinois’ 102 counties. To learn more, visit 4h.extension.illinois.edu.