Living with cancer: an alternative to pink ribbon campaigns

A collection of ball gowns with designs inspired by cancer cells

The inspiration behind a new collection of ball gowns at the University of British Columbia may surprise you. Each of the gown’s designs was inspired by microscopic photos of cancer cells and cellular systems taken at the UBC lab. The exhibit titled “Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation between Destruction and Beauty” was created by Jacqueline Firkins, an associate professor in Theatre and Film at the University.

I was absolutely in awe of these gowns and that awe only grew when I realized that Professor Firkins had created the gowns to give us a new way of visualizing cancer. We’ve all had someone in our lives suffer from a form of cancer and we’ve seen what it can do to the bodyhair loss, weight-loss, etc. And those things are unfortunately considered to be ugly. But I love that these gowns allow you to see the science behind cancer and to see cancer as something that can be beautiful.

I emailed Professor Firkins to find out more about the collection and her message.

What inspired you to create these dresses?
The idea for the dresses came about through my attempt to diversify my research portfolio at UBC.  While many professors fulfill the research portion of their jobs through article and book publication, artist often have alternate forms of output.  Thus far, most of my research has been in designing costumes for stage productions.  I was looking for alternate outlets/formats for my creative skills and interests.  In the spring of 2013, I met with the head of the Peter Wall Institute at UBC to discuss research possibilities.  The institute focuses on interdisciplinary research and they have an exciting history of funding innovative collaborations.  They guided me toward a research mentoring grant in which I was to connect with an experienced professor outside of my discipline and develop a joint project.  I looked through the list of scholars and quickly stumbled upon Dr. Christian Naus’s website.  The website shows a number of amazing microscopic images of cellular structures, many of them linked to his research on cancer.  I immediately saw how the images could become clothes.  They have a phenomenal sense of colour, texture, contrast, balance, depth, and shape.

While a scientist can look at the image and understand the biological content, I saw the images for their visual impact.  Since my role as an artist is to see and reflect things in way another might not, it seemed a perfect fit.  I then discussed the idea of designing clothes based on the imagery with some of my friends who’ve been through cancer, and I was amazed at how quickly the concept incited conversations about body image, about the need for beauty when grappling with mortality, about how the body is affected by the disease, and about how little fashion imagery there is related to cancer.  I knew that I was onto something.

You’ve said you hope your dresses act as an alternative image to pink ribbons. What message do you hope people get out of your dresses that they aren’t getting elsewhere?
Mostly I hope to connect some dots.  I think the pink ribbon is a phenomenal tool for brand recognition.  I know that when I buy the pink bag of potato chips, my extra dollar goes toward funding for cancer research. But many of the women I talked with voiced a disconnect with the pink ribbon in terms of personal experience.  Since it has become so ubiquitous, it overshadows individuality.  It is a tool for marketing that can feel somewhat cute in relationship to the reality of the disease, ironically tying it up in a sweet bow.

My dresses, while focusing on the beauty in the imagery and not the hard destructiveness, have a darkness and individuality to them.  They are directly related to the disease in that they reflect the biology of the cellular structures.  All ten are symmetrical with asymmetrical details, symbolizing the way a body might be changed after diagnosis and treatment.  I designed a number of different necklines as many of the women I have talked with have voiced a desire to both hide and show off the parts of their body they feel proud of or insecure about after grappling with cancer.  They show a nostalgia in their 40s/50s silhouette references, mirroring a nostalgia for a pre-diagnosis body.  They have a robust shape, symbolizing the strength and resilience of the women I’ve known who have struggled with the disease.  They are therefore connected to the personal stories of both struggle and triumph I have been privileged to share.  I hope that they make people smile and feel strong and proud.  I hope that they interest people in the scientific research that can further the search for better treatments and understanding.  I hope that they incite personal stories that inform the world what dealing with cancer feels like.  I hope that they generate dialogue about body image and what it means to feel beautiful, which is impossibly subjective, but an inescapable facet of being human.  I hope that they create empathy and joy.


Photo description: Normal brain area at the top (blue and green) encountering invading cancer cells (glioma; red). The “Brain Invasion” dress is modeled by Eva Tavares, a UBC Opera Undergraduate, in a black faille halter with blue/pink silk shredded trim & tulle underskirt black silk faille with shredded vintage silk saris, tulle underskirt over sparkle organza

You also said the dresses reflect what women with cancer may be feeling about their bodies. What do you hope the dresses will “say” to women?
There are some amazing other artists out there grappling with body image right now.  I think there is another version of this project that is all about the revelation of the harsh realities of the disease: scarring, erosion of confidence and strength, etc.  I think that no one project can show us everything at once.  I hope that my dresses, in combination with some of the other current photography, sculpture, and film projects, helps to generate discussion about body image.  I do not hope, with one small project, to solve the pervasive societal pressures of conforming to a narrow view of beauty, but I hope it helps people talk about their experiences and insecurities in ways they might not have without the platform for dialogue.  It would be a glorious world if we all saw everything as beautiful.  I think the more we look at diversity, the more we widen our definition of beauty.

In the meantime, I accept that it’s okay to want to hide a part of your body that you aren’t proud of.  This goes for all of us with or without disease and scarring.  I tried to create a line of dresses in which a woman can cover her asymmetrical bust line if she wants to, but also reveal her shoulders because they make her feel strong, in which she could find a celebration of colour that might balance out a grey tired mood impacted by chemotherapy, in which she could see her internal destruction proudly worn as a dress in which to celebrate.  I hoped they feel personal.  I hope they feel respectful.  I hope they make women say, “I have cancer and I could wear this dress and feel amazing in it.  Now, here’s my story.  Pour yourself a cocktail, listen, and talk to me about it.”

Do you have a favourite piece and why?  
I feel lucky to not have a favourite.  It tells me that I didn’t flag half way through the project.  What I’ve loved so far is that when I ask others about their favourite, I get a different answer every time.  Some are drawn to the vivid red as it’s the brightest of the dresses.  Others are drawn to the most complex details and layers.  Others like the black taffeta with the red bow for its simple, clean lines.  Others like the green taffeta because the abstract circles feel so distinctly like flowers just due to their context and layout on a party dress.  Others like the purple satin with the feather skirt for its contrast of hard and soft edges.  So my favourite is the way they function as a group and elicit varied response.

What’s been the response to the dresses so far?
So far I get a lot of smiles and people saying that they feel inspired or joyful.  I do not expect everyone to feel the same.  I think the best art doesn’t predict response, as it’s generated to be a dialogue between the art and the viewer, not just as a manifestation of an artist’s need to personally express.  So I expect some people to feel disconnected or even like I’ve been reductive in my representations.  But even if I make one woman say, “thank you.  These made me smile and want to talk about my experience,” then it’s a pretty good day’s work.

If you live near the UBC campus you can see the collection in person on March 25 at noon in the Frederic Wood Theatre.

Dress photos courtesy of Tim Matheson. Cell photos courtesy of Wun Chey Sin, Ph.D., Christian Naus, Ph.D.