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Jacqueline Firkins tends to details on a dress she created titled 'Cells have skeletons' from her cancer inspired series at the UBC Frederic Wood Theatre in Vancouver on Feb. 13, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
Jacqueline Firkins tends to details on a dress she created titled 'Cells have skeletons' from her cancer inspired series at the UBC Frederic Wood Theatre in Vancouver on Feb. 13, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

Medical marvels: fighting cancer through fashion Add to ...

The 10 knockout ball gowns lighting up a basement costume shop on the University of British Columbia campus burst with a colourful, textured elegance, a regal playfulness that in no way suggests what inspired them - cancer. Microscopic photos of cancer cells and healthy cellular systems studied by cancer researchers became costume designer Jacqueline Firkins' muse, as she brought the death-charged images to life with silk and feathers.In her quest to launch an interdisciplinary examination of the impact of cancer on the body, Firkins found the website of cancer researcher Christian Naus, a Peter Wall Distinguished Scholar in Residence and Canada Research Chair in UBC's Department of Cellular & Physiological Sciences and Life Sciences Institute. She was drawn to the microscopic cellular photos from his lab.

"I immediately said these would make the most amazing clothes," said Firkins, who secured a $10,000 grant from UBC's Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies to make them. "The colours, the patterns, the blend of really clean lines and really blurred lines, the contrast was spectacular. They were so vibrant."

But Dr. Naus wasn't so sure initially.

"I was very confused. It didn't really seem like something I should be involved in," he says. "But then when we actually met and talked about it as an opportunity to reach out to cancer survivors ... and how it impacted their image, and then also to be able to use that as a vehicle for public awareness.... Jacqueline really did open my eyes to the project."

Firkins calls the collection of 10 dresses Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation between Destruction and Beauty. Her lab-coat couture would be at home - a highlight, really - at the most elegant of events. A photo of migrating neurons in a healthy developing mouse brain became an off-the-shoulder zebra-print organza with a sweep of colourful dyed silk ribbon. A black-and-white photo of a brain tumour inspired a silk organza gown, feminine and sweet with its puffy sleeves and empire waist, an enormous black silk chiffon accent creeping over the neckline. An image of normal brain cells in a petri dish struck Firkins immediately as having a floral quality, translating into a silk organza 1950s garden party frock, its flower-laden silhouette swishing about in a celebration of nature - and life.

In developing the project, Firkins, who received her MFA in theatre design from Yale, reached out to three friends who have battled cancer. The talk quickly turned to the pink-ribbon campaign - a spectacular fundraising tool but something they felt was disconnected from a patient's experience. "One of my friends said the ribbon felt like branding and not like personal story."

Much more intimate were the stories they shared. "There is a point," one of the women explained, "where once you are diagnosed, you know part of your body is going away. You don't know how much of it, you don't know if it will be noticeable to the world, but part of your body is going away. And you will never be symmetrical again," recalls Firkins. As a result, many of Firkins's dresses begin as symmetrical designs and an asymmetrical feature is added on top, taking over - a chic parasite.

"I was blown away because [initially] I thought here's an image and you're just going to print it on T-shirts, that sort of thing," says Dr. Naus, whose research focuses on brain cancer and stroke, after seeing photos of some of the dresses. "I've been able to see some of the [cellular] images side by side with some of the pictures of the dresses and I was amazed at how she wove the concept of the image into the fabric of the dresses."

Firkins would like to auction them off to raise money for cancer research and to generate dialogue among people whose lives have been impacted by cancer. "How do you relate to this? Does this feel like it's connected to your experience? Does it make you want to tell your story? Does it feel like it's too pretty and your own experience is harrowing, so it doesn't feel like a good representation? Anything that gets people talking so we can understand what that experience is is great."

The dresses will be exhibited to the public for the first time during a talk by Jacqueline Firkins at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC on March 25 at noon.

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