Fashion and Disease Awareness

A cancer researcher and fashion designer combine to make a dress that visualizes the biological process of cancer.

What makes collaborations between people from different disciplines truly innovative is not just the tangible outcome of a project, but how the process itself transforms how the collaborators think about their own work. So when Dr Esther Baena collaborated with fashion designer Arielle Gogh for the ‘Descience – Research on the Runway’, show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was an opportunity both to generate awareness around cancer and to extend her perspective on her own research. Dr Baena is a junior group leader conducting scientific studies at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, based at the University of Manchester. It was, she says, ‘a challenge to put a scientific approach with fashion and try to communicate science in a different way.’ 

A key to creative collaboration between experts in different fields is discovering, or rather inventing a common language which is played out in the collaborative project. ‘At the beginning it was tough,’ reflects Dr Baena, ‘because when you are talking for the first time with the designer, you need to explain cancer from the basics.’ Equally she observes that, ‘there were so many things about fashion that were new to me but both fields are really directed by the same patterns of creativity and imagination. You have to think out-of-the-box if you are doing a scientific experiment or designer, the driving-forces are closer than you think at the beginning.’ 

Biological process

Ultimately they settled on colour and volume as the vehicle to visualize the development of the cancer, as the normal pink colour of the cell grows darker as the cancer progresses. ‘My own focus is on prostrate cancer,’ says Dr Baena, ‘we are representing cancer transformation as a whole so the images that Arielle used to get the inspiration for the colours are based on images from my research.’

But is there a contradiction between the impact of cancer and the beauty of the dress? ‘One thing that we would like to reflect,’ says Dr Baena, ‘is that cancer is a biological process and the more we understand the biological process the more we can target it. The biology is just biology. It’s a biological process that causes cells to generate and become invasive and of course the consequences of that are very bad for the body. One thing we don’t want anyone to feel is that is disrespectful because it is shown in a nice way. Not at all, it’s about, “let’s understand cancer and then we can beat cancer”. We need to understand it.’ 

Curiosity and creativity

This unique form of visualization and the integrity of the idea (scientists are visual in the way they identify pattern in the transformation of disease) achieved its goal of generating awareness. ‘The response to the project has been much bigger than I expected,’ says Baena. ‘The whole idea of the Descience project is to communicate science of any kind, not just biomedicine, in a different way in order to reach people.’ Other garments were created around the themes of marine life, neural networks, and malaria.

Aside from the awareness the project has brought to the general public what kinds of awareness and insight did the project give to Dr Baena around her own work. ‘The importance of communication to a broad audience, making something that is very accessible for people definitely can be a great channel. You just need very curious and creative people, do the work accurately, and think outside-the-box. Multidisciplinary approaches are used all the time and this is just another way to show that the more you mix people the better ideas that can come out of it. I will keep applying that thought in my scientific work.’