Cancer couture

‘Cancer dresses’ aim to spark conversations about body image

Eva Tavares, a University of British Columbia student, wears a black faille halter dress with blue and pink shredded silk trim. It references glioma cancer cells (stained red in the image on the left) invading normal brain area, depicted in blue and green. (Photo credit, left: Dr. Wun Chey Sin and Dr. Christian Naus; Right: Tim Matheson)


This dress, worn by UBC student Mercedes de la Zerta, features a black organza cap sleeve and sheer top and a multicolor organza diagonal trim. It references astrocyte cancer cells, stained green. The blue color indicates the cell nuclei. (Photo credit, left: John Bechberger; Right: Dr. Christian Nau, Tim Matheson)


A glioma brain tumor, shown growing in a culture dish, inspired this grey organza gown worn by UBC student Helena Fisher-Welsh. (Photo credit, left: Tim Matheson; Right: Dr. Wun Chey Sin, Dr. Christian Naus)


Brain cancer cells showing interaction of two proteins – gap junction channels (green) and a cell growth factor (red) inspired this purple satin halter dress with a feather underskirt worn by UBC student Katherine McLaughlin. (Photo credit, left: Tim Matheson; Right: Dr. Christian Naus, Christine Fu)


The silk taffeta dress worn by UBC student Chelsi Walsh references cancerous astrocytes. Cells are stained to show their filamentous 'cytoskeleton' which determines their shape and ability to move. The more cancer cells move, the more aggressive the disease. (Photo credit, left: Tim Matheson; Right: John Bechberger, Dr. Christian Naus)


Bronwyn Malloy, a UBC alumna and McGill student, wears a green silk charmeuse gown with blue rosettes.  It references astrocytes growing in a petri dish. The blue indicates the nuclei; green areas reveal gap junction channels which link the cells. Disruption can promote cancer. (Photo credit, left: Tim Matheson; Right: Dr. Hoa Le, Dr. Christian Naus)


UBC student Sarah Roa wears a black velvet halter inspired by channels in the small intestine. The blue shows the cell nuclei and green highlights membrane channels called pannexins that can either enhance or inhibit cancer progression.  (Photo credit, left: Tim Matheson; Right: Dr.  Stephen Bond, Dr. Christian Naus)


Brain tissue showing an area injury, in faded red, is filled with dying neurons, which are stained green. Normal cells die as cancers progress. Rebecca Burks, a UBC student, wears a black silk taffeta gown inspired by brain tissue. (Photo credit, left: Dr. Moises Freitas-Andrade, Dr. Christian Naus; Right: Tim Matheson)


Designer Jacqueline Firkins, of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Theater and Film, created dresses inspired by cancer to provoke conversations about disease and body image. Her project is called “Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation Between Destruction and Beauty.” (Photo credit: Tim Matheson)

At first glance, the dresses are simply stunning: 10 fantasies spun from silk and taffeta, in vivid reds, blues and emerald greens, with ribbons and rosettes. Never mind that you don’t have a ball to go to, it’s impossible not to covet a favorite gown—until you learn that the designs were inspired by microscopic images of cancer cells.

Then your response gets complicated. Yes, they’re beautiful, but—cancer dresses?

Designer Jacqueline Firkins, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Theater and Film, welcomes your discomfort. She hopes that her 10-dress project, “Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation Between Destruction and Beauty,” provokes conversations about such unfashionable topics as disease and body image, the need for beauty when grappling with mortality and the relationship between science and art.

So far, she is getting her wish.

“I’m astounded to see how many people have responded,” said Firkins in a phone interview from her home in Vancouver. “Even the people who say they’re offended by it are talking about why they’re offended. They’re telling their stories. If it gets people to talk about their experience, that’s one of the best things that art can do.”

Ordinarily, Firkins designs costumes for plays. But in search of a new project, she sought out Dr. Christian Naus of UBC’s Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences after becoming fascinated by his images of brain cancer cells streaked with green, blue and red dyes. Where the scientist saw astrocytes and neurons growing in culture dishes, the fashion designer was instantly struck by how the images could become clothes.

 “They have a phenomenal sense of color, texture, contrast, balance, depth and shape,” she said. “Since my role as an artist is to see and reflect things in ways another might not, it seemed a perfect fit.”

Firkins’ project was funded by the university’s Peter Wall Institute, which encourages interdisciplinary research and innovative collaborations. Theater department teaching assistants trimmed and hemmed the dresses, which were constructed in Firkins’ apartment in December and unveiled this week in a campus seminar.

While the leap from cell culture to haute couture may not seem obvious to the fashion challenged, the decision to focus on ball gowns specifically was not immediately apparent even to Firkins. She first took her still unformed idea to an informal review board—three close friends who had or were now being treated for cancer.

Discussions about cancer and clothes elicited insights about how her friends felt about their bodies both before and after treatment for breast, uterine and lung cancers. In these and in conversations with other people going through cancer, some themes emerged:

  • Enough with the pink ribbons: Her friends found them too sweet and so ubiquitous that they overshadowed individual experiences.
  • Cancer treatment meant feeling physically withered and drained of energy, but also tapped wells of strength and resilience.
  • Many people expressed nostalgia for the way their lives—and bodies—had been, but also a sense of optimism about forging a new future.

Firkins had been considering menswear or sportswear for her project, but these conversations steered her to ball gowns. In addition to reflecting the colors and shapes of the Naus lab’s cell cultures, her dresses would have a darkness and individuality to them. They would have asymmetrical details, symbolizing the way a body might be changed after diagnosis and treatment. They would have varying necklines—strapless, sheer, covered shoulders—to hide or show off parts of the body women felt proud of or insecure about. They would have a nostalgic, full-skirted silhouette from the 1950s while holding out the tantalizing promise of a party.

 “A ball gown has a narrative,” she said. “We want to know where it’s going.”

Although she is happy to discuss her inspirations and goals, Firkins doesn’t expect everyone to see what she sees—and in fact, is curious to hear how others interpret the work. In forums including newspaper comment sections and a public presentation of the project in Vancouver, reactions have ranged from “beautiful” to “eww.”

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center behavioral psychologist Dr. Bonnie McGregor found the dresses “interesting and beautiful,” but added, “I don’t like the idea of wearing something that looks like tumor cells.”

An assistant member of the Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division, McGregor is currently examining the health effects of art immersion on cancer patients. When she told the artist she’s working with about the dresses, the artist and her creative team had a “Eww, really?” reaction.

“But sometimes art is meant to do that,” McGregor said. “Sometimes art is meant to provoke, to get people responding.”

In the London Mail newspaper, one reader commented on a story about the dresses, writing: “This is wrong. You can be inspired by whatever you want, but still … there’s nothing beautiful about cancer.”

Another reader responded: “But there’s a beauty in those who battle through it. And a beauty in those who research it, working every day to understand the different mechanisms that make it tick.”

At the seminar earlier this week, much of the discussion revolved around what would happen to the dresses next. Firkins is looking for sites to display them and considering taking them to medical and research conferences. By next spring, she hopes to find a charity to auction the dresses to raise funds for cancer research.

Most of all, she hopes the dresses continue to provoke hard—and healing—conversations.

 “I hope they make women say, ‘I have cancer and I could wear this dress and feel amazing in it,’” she said. “‘Now here’s my story. Pour yourself a cocktail, listen and talk to me about it.’”

Solid tumors, such as those of the brain, are the focus of Solid Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers. 

Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.

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