What lies beneath 

Raising awareness—and eyebrows—for breast cancer

At the end of last year’s BRA Show, all of the models—bedecked in original bra art ranging from wire structures to pink-frosted birthday cakes—stood to the sides of the Wilma stage for the entrance of the final model. With a man on each arm to steady her, 84-year-old Ruth Stein made her way to center stage. Dressed to the nines in a straight, knee-length skirt dripping with silver beads, Stein slowly unbuttoned her black lace blouse to reveal a leopard skin print bra. The crowd roared with admiration and appreciation. Parkinson’s disease was not going to stop this fireball of a woman from supporting the cause of another disease: breast cancer.

The BRA Show is a fashion event featuring wearable sculptural pieces created by local artists as a way to raise breast cancer awareness and funds for local providers. Originating in Seattle in 1999, the BRA Show in Missoula is a collaborative effort between Blue Mountain Clinic and Partnership Health Center. “People come out of the woodwork for this show,” says volunteer organizer Nancy McCourt. “We never know how many bras or models we have until the dress rehearsal because people just keep popping up and wanting to participate in any way until the 11th hour.”

The show, now in its second year in Missoula, has received mixed reactions. “Bras are part of our culture and world,” says McCourt. “There are whole slews of people who are anti-bra and those who are pro-bra.” Some women feel that this garment symbolizes the as-yet unbroken repression of the female sex, while others see it as a piece of clothing that can range from practical to sexy. Most women realize that there are times for going braless and times for wearing a running bra, a nursing bra, or a lacy black number under a slinky cocktail dress. Wearing or not wearing one, it seems, is a personal choice.

“The concept of the show is brilliant,” says McCourt, who sits on the board of the Blue Mountain Clinic and is a friend of the two sisters who started the event in Seattle. Since its inception, the show has attracted many participants: women who have survived breast cancer, those who still have it, families and friends, as well as many others who have been touched by other forms of cancer. It is a humorous show dedicated to a not very humorous topic.

“The more we can get the message out about breast cancer awareness, the better. If combining humor, art, and fashion is the way to catch people’s attention, then so be it,” says McCourt. “People just kept calling and calling, wanting to share. They wanted to participate because they’d been inspired by personal experience. There are some amazing people out there. I have never had cancer, but at 41 years old, I have lost a lot of people close to me, and the list keeps getting longer. We need to help combat this disease in any way we can.”

A cancer (not breast) survivor herself, Blossom Savage says she wouldn’t miss modeling again this year. Wearing a fruit and vegetable basket bra designed from Styrofoam in last year’s show, she said she felt a need to help ignite breast cancer awareness in any way she could. “I didn’t even know what a bra show was,” she says, “but it was a great experience and an effective and rollicking way to get the community involved in a serious subject.”

Stein volunteered as a model but knew that no one quite expected her to actually sport an art bra on the runway. “It was my idea to have an older person model,” she says, noting that breast cancer can strike at any age. “No one knew I was going to take my shirt off. The crowd went crazy. We all need to lend our support when and how we can. And I enjoyed my 15 minutes.”

Exhibited prior to the show at the Sutton Gallery West, this year’s original bra art collection will consist of more than 100 bra art sculptures. And make no mistake: Art is definitely the operative word. This year’s collection includes an alarm clock bra, a bird’s nest bra (complete with robin’s eggs), a “Leave-It-To-Beaver,” mom-in-the-kitchen-style apron bra, a chastity belt-style bra, a glass-blown bra, a hands-off bra, a pine-needle bra, a post-mastectomy bra, a bra made from bike reflectors, a bra consisting of toy soldiers and two toy guns, a Mona Lisa bra, an Elvis bra, a Pocahontas bra, and a bra on which the “world’s baby” (made from globes) is suckling.

Ironically, two artists from last year’s show were later faced with healthcare issues of their own and received needed health services thanks to the funds that their art pieces helped support.

At last year’s show, someone told McCourt that during the fashion event she “felt like the Wilma was levitating.” McCourt said she knew just what this person meant. “The energy was high. The support, the encouragement.

Everyone’s hearts opened up,” she says. “This is a cool town. Receptive. I love Missoula for that.”

Alex Baker, who volunteered as a model at last year’s show, says she “wanted to be part of something that had a life- and death-affirming impact on the community.” She wore a big, heavy wire bra that she said was quite uncomfortable by evening’s end. “I remember thinking after the fact that the heavy discomfort of having to wear that bra in the show was nothing compared to what women with breast cancer and their families have to go through,” she says. Still, she plans to model again this year. “It’s not everyday that you get together with 70-plus women from the community and run around with no clothes on. The show is a wonderful—and important—event.”

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