Professor designs gowns inspired by microscopic images of cancer

On first glance, it's hard to believe the stunning ball gowns created by UBC costume design professor Jacqueline Firkins were inspired by cancer.

Professor Firkins was struck by microscopic imagery of cancer cells and cellular systems after connecting with Dr. Christian Naus, a 2013-2014 Peter Wall Distinguished Scholar in Residence and professor in UBC's Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences.

"These images are stunning," says Firkins, an assistant professor in UBC’s Department of Theatre and Film. "They are gorgeous, and yet of course they are images of destruction."

Right: Astrocytes from the brain growing in a culture dish. Photo from John Bechberger and Dr. Christian Naus. Left: Inspired by the accompanying photo, a black organza cap sleeve dress with sheer top and multicolour organza diagonal trim, designed by Prof. Firkins. Worn by UBC acting student Mercedes de la Zerta, photo by Tim Matheson.

The dresses are part of a project aimed to get people talking about the disease, and how it relates to beauty and body image.

"I have had a couple of friends that have gone through breast cancer," says Professor Firkins, explaining that part of her motivation to explore the beauty and fashion of cancer came from wanting to provide an alternative to imagery like the pink ribbon and Movember moustache campaigns.

"I'm fascinated with the idea that these images are so far removed from what any imagery is like for the people who are actually going through cancer," she says.

Dr. Christian Naus and Prof. Jacqueline Firkins (left) with models after a presentation at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

View a Flickr gallery of Prof. Firkins' designs and their cellular inspirations here.

As part of the research project, Prof. Firkins hopes to start a dialogue with women who have experienced cancer to learn how they relate to the current imagery and marketing that surrounds many cancer awareness initiatives.

"Does the feeling of the pink t-shirt, the yellow bracelet ... do they feel connected to that? Is there a sense of inspiration in that? How would they like to see that imagery change and morph?" asks Prof. Firkins.

"Is there a way to actually look at this imagery and find the beauty in it? Find some kind of fashion, style ... that is not so far removed from the disease itself?"

Above, UBC Opera student Eva Tavares models one of Prof. Firkins’ dresses. Photo by Tim Matheson. The dress was inspired by the image below, which shows normal brain area (in blue and green) encountering invading cancer cells (red). Photo from Dr. Wun Chey Sin and Dr. Christian Naus.

The collection of 10 dresses is part of a Peter Wall Institute Research Mentoring Program project called "Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation between Destruction and Beauty". The cancer imagery was curated by Dr. Naus and given to Professor Firkins to inspire her designs. 

As with Professor Firkins and Dr. Naus, the Mentoring Program links Faculty Associates of the Institute with early to mid-career scholars at UBC to support innovative highly interdisciplinary research collaborations. The Program is now part of the Institute's Wall Scholars Research Award.

On September 23rd, 2014, the gowns were auctioned off at a fundraiser presented by Scotiabank in partnership with alumni UBC, Western Living Magazine (WLM), the Canadian Cancer Society (CCAS) and Porsche Centre Vancouver. The auction raised $40,000 to support funding for cancer research and health solutions.