Ball gowns blend art and science

Fashion designers are known for finding inspiration in unusual places, but cancer research laboratories have been largely overlooked - until now.

Earlier this year, costume designer Jacqueline Firkins, an assistant professor in the UBC Department of Theatre and Film, created 10 evening gowns based on colourful microscopic images of cancer cells and cellular systems.

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All 10 of those one-of-a-kind gowns - which use silk taffeta, satin and organza to represent brain tumour tissue and invading cells - will be up for auction on Tuesday, Sept. 23 at the Fashioning Cancer Fundraiser in support of the Canadian Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Centre at UBC.

West Vancouver resident Dr. Carolyn Gotay, who is director of the Canadian Cancer Society Prevention Centre and a professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC, says this fundraiser is unique.

"I've never heard of such a project," she says. "It really is a mixture between art and science, I think culminating in some beautiful art pieces."

Firkins originally created the dresses as part of a research project she presented last spring called Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation Between Destruction and Beauty. By making and exhibiting gowns inspired by cell images captured in the lab of UBC professor Christian Naus, Firkins sought to open up dialogue about cancer, beauty and body image.

"My hope is that somehow through fashion, I more closely tap into what a woman might be feeling about her body as she undergoes the disease, but simultaneously reflect a strength, beauty, and resilience," Firkins said in her research statement.

The dresses were also intended as a visual alternative to existing wearable cancer symbols - for example, the ubiquitous pink ribbon as a fashion statement for breast cancer awareness. While pink ribbons may inspire many, others might connect more with Firkins' artistic imagery.

"There's beauty in art, but there's also a meaning behind it," says Gotay. "I hope that it will start a conversation and, from my perspective, I hope it will start people thinking about what we can do to prevent (cancer) from happening."

Gotay says the goal of the prevention centre is to raise the profile of cancer prevention as part of the entire cancer picture.

"We're trying really to make a difference that will translate eventually into fewer cases of cancers being diagnosed, because about half of cancers could be prevented if we applied what we know right now," she says.

The Fashioning Cancer Fundraiser takes place from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Porsche Centre, 688 Terminal Ave., Vancouver. In addition to the dress auction, the event will also feature cocktails, food and a live performance by Canadian musician and breast cancer survivor Bif Naked. Tickets are $100, available at alumni.ubc.ca/fashion.

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