October is Breast Cancer Month, something fashion plays a very active role in. Initially brought to life by Evelyn H. Lauder and Alexandra Penney in 1992, the Pink Ribbon campaign is now almost thirty years old. At some point nearly every major brand has been a part of it, raising both awareness and funds. 

Fashion Targets Breast Cancer (an idea that originally started in the United Kingdom and then travelled to America) has raised millions of dollars and has really helped grow awareness, and survivors in the MENA region would like to see the industry here also become more involved in such campaigns, and for the issue to become more than something fashion focuses on just once a year. 

More women are diagnosed with breast cancer than any other cancer. While early education campaigns have helped with mortality rates, it is still the world’s most prevalent cancer. However, how inclusive is fashion to women who have suffered from breast cancer, the survivors? 

The bra and beyond

Women who have suffered from breast cancer tend to have a love-hate relationship with fashion.  Dubai-based Astrid Montalta runs the 100% female owned and run sustainable intimates’ brand, NOOD, that puts inclusivity at the core of its message. She explains: “Breasts in particular have historically been a defining image of womanhood, from pressure on their appearance to breastfeeding your child. Imagine your breasts suddenly becoming the difference between life and death and having to be removed. You are not only losing a part of you physically, but emotionally, a part of you that is often seen as the core of womanhood. Women going through something like breast cancer need to feel supported and represented.” 

Maha Gorton, the founder of hand-crafted, Middle Eastern-inspired fashion and lifestyle accessories for trendy little ones, Little Farasha, has had two mastectomies after being diagnosed with DCIS twice, and her mother and sister are breast cancer survivors. All have recovered and are now healthy.  She says, “Brands need to move away from just making items pink and running a promotion on that.” While international lingerie brands such as Marks and Spencer and Next have addressed the issue of comfort and fit for women post mastectomy surgery, there is still not enough being done.  For breast cancer survivors, front closing bras are often easier to put on and many opt for styles that fasten with a zip or hook and have hidden pockets to hold a breast form. 

But while the bra may be the main issue for these women, no one has really investigated their fashion needs as whole. Gorton says, “During the post-surgical recovery phase, wide, oversized tops were much easier to wear than shirts and you don’t need to stretch your arms back. I was also very conscious at first that I looked strange, and that people could see. I didn’t want to always be in oversized tops and found that I felt more relaxed and confident wearing pretty scarves draped over my chest.” These styling tricks can help boost survivors’ confidence. 

Clothes that empower 

Fashion can do more than just run a breast cancer campaign for a limited time. Fashion Trust Awards winner Zeid Hijazi says, “I only see pink t-shirts –  it would be very nice to see a designer breaking that barrier by actually designing for women who underwent mastectomies.” His own mother  is a breast cancer survivor, and he and his family have started a foundation in Jordan which supports breast cancer patients who are undergoing treatment by helping them to take care of their mental health.  

Ovarian cancer survivor Lama Raichi is an advertising professional, and the founder of the UAE-based fashion brand BLSSD. This urban contemporary brand was born to financially help a cancer support group called Blessed, both of which were founded in 2014, following her own life-changing experience with the disease. “As a cancer survivor myself, I can confidently say that most patients and survivors just want to feel normal again. There’s an innate drive to make up for a stigmatized view that the world casts on us by proving that we can be just as confident, bold and style driven. And while we respect the power of pink in raising awareness, there’s a danger in it actually inadvertently stigmatizing the very people one of whose main drives is to escape being labeled.” 

Since one of the characteristics of fashion is to empower women, BLSSD has taken a more proactive approach to doing so, says Raichi, “On a product level, our focus is on inclusivity in fit. Layering is a big part of our aesthetic that is not only trend focused, but also creates creative coverage that builds on attitude. Oversized fits are highly forgiving for any body type, and, when styled correctly, can help anyone have the confidence to make a statement. On a higher level, we strive to create ‘behind the scenes events’ for patients undergoing treatment to help them look and feel good for a day – to help them forget their ordeal, even if for a little while, and to bring out the woman in them. These events include everything fashion has to offer, from full hair and makeup makeovers, to styling sessions, all the way to a personalized fashion shoot for each patient.”  

She encourages other homegrown brands to take this approach to breast cancer survivors, who are in danger of suffering a blow to their femininity and confidence. As Gorton says, “Breast cancer has been for a long time, and unfortunately still is, in some ways especially in this region, something that isn’t spoken about. Creating an unspoken dialogue and raising awareness through fashion has helped in many ways.”