Inspired by the MFA Exhibit, a Local High Schooler Painted Her Prom Dress with Works by Hokusai

Grace Lennon was named prom queen at Marshfield High School's junior prom and showed her dress off at the MFA this week.

mfa hokusai prom dress

Grace Lennon models her hand-painted prom dress, inspired by works from the Hokusai exhibition at the MFA / photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A few months ago, when Grace Lennon began shopping for a dress to wear to her junior prom at Marshfield High School, something didn’t feel quite right.

“I saw these beautiful dresses that all these girls were getting, and I thought, ‘These are all so gorgeous, but they don’t mean much to me,'” said Lennon, now a rising senior, in a phone interview earlier this week. “I know it sounds kind of silly, that I have to have value in something like that, but it was really important to me that I had something that was meaningful.”

It was then that the budding artist began trying to convince her mom to let her paint a work of art on a white dress, an idea met with skepticism at first.

“She was like, ‘No, that’s going to be too hard. You’re not going to find a good dress. You don’t have time for that,'” Lennon recalled. “But I was like, ‘You’ll see.'”

Determined, she began sketching out ideas, letting her mind wander to a recent day in April when her parents uncharacteristically pulled her out of school early to take a trip to Boston and see the “Hokusai” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.

“I’ve loved ukioy-e for a long time,” said Lennon, referring to the Japanese master’s woodblock printing style. “I really admire the little touches [Hokusai] put on everything.”

In addition to being a fan of Hokusai’s craftsmanship, Lennon liked the idea that his works, especially the iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa,” are so recognizable.

Her mom, meanwhile, gave in, and another shopping trip followed—this time successful, resulting in the purchase of a black-and-white dress that even the shop owners were excited to see Lennon paint.

“I was locked into it then,” she said. “I didn’t want to disappoint people and—most importantly—myself because I knew I could really make something that was my own.”

Lennon spent about a week, working up to 12 to 14 hours some days, reproducing Hokusai’s works with acrylic and fabric paints on the taffeta dress, spread out on her kitchen table.

“I love to do art, and it felt like no time passed at all,” she said. “I ended up finishing it the night before prom, which is kind of scary, but my mom was more nervous than I was.”

mfa hokusai prom dress

photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At prom, the response to Lennon’s dress was overwhelmingly positive. Her class appointed her prom queen, alongside a kilt-clad prom king.

“I was just amazed when they said my name because I was not expecting it. My friends just swarmed me, and it was the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “I never would’ve expected that, honestly, in a million years. I’m just kind of in the background at school—I do a lot of art, I’m really close to my few friends—so to be recognized like that was crazy.”

After the prom, Lennon reached out to the MFA, sending a neatly handwritten letter expressing her fascination with the “Hokusai” exhibit and sharing her project.

“I felt like I owed it to reach out to them—not really to tell them about my dress, but I just really wanted to thank them for having that exhibit and teaching so many people about Hokusai,” she said.

In response, the MFA sent Lennon an invitation to show her dress off in the galleries. The teenager took the museum up on its offer on Thursday, visiting the “Hokusai” exhibit again with her family, just before it closes on August 9.

Although Marshfield High School doesn’t host a senior prom, Lennon does plan on continuing to create one-of-a-kind dresses for future occasions, perhaps even for other people.

“I hope I inspire other people to do stuff like this,” she said. “People say it’s the easiest thing to stand out and be yourself, but I think it’s really hard sometimes. It takes a lot of courage because other people can judge you for what you are and what you’ve been and what you’ve done. I think women—especially young girls—should feel like they can stand out and be who they want to be.”

mfa hokusai prom dress

photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston