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Northrop Frye Centre event unveils the fabric of crime

Featuring dress and textile historian Alison Matthews David
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Fashion and crime intersect in strange and fascinating ways. JULIAN BALOGH/CC FLICKR
Fashion and crime intersect in strange and fascinating ways. JULIAN BALOGH/CC FLICKR

If you’re like me, you’re probably guilty of the obligatory ‘fit check’ before you go out the door. Maybe you turn around in the mirror a little to check out your jeans or fluff up your hair before making your exit. 

If committing a crime is on your radar for the day, it might be a good idea to check twice. 

The study of forensics encompasses nearly every aspect of our lives. In a criminal setting, every action we make is a self-portrait. Forensic scientists often make use of traces left on or by clothing in their investigations, showing us how we’re always leaving our mark — even the way we cuff our sleeves shows our hand. 

The Northrop Frye Centre held an event recently featuring the work of Alison Matthews David, discussing exactly this notion — the intersection of fashion and crime. 

The fabric of crime 

Using clothing and accessories in criminal investigations stretches back further in history than you might imagine. Even the etymology of the word ‘clue’ has connotations to textiles — a ‘clew’ is a ball of yarn that leads someone out of a labyrinth, which is a very fitting connection indeed. 

A modern-day Sherlock Holmes might find that your trusty pair of Doc Martens leaves a telltale imprint, even if they are vintage and the treads are worn down. Historically speaking, detectives would use clothing indicators as clues, following threads of reasoning to solve a puzzle. During the mid-nineteenth century, more organized investigations began to take place, and deductive logic led detectives to the resolutions of their cases. 

Matthews David’s research has led her across the world in search of the connections between dress and crime. One of the most notable parts of her research, as she recounted in her lecture, led her to the Sherlock Holmes museum in Lucens, Switzerland. The museum contains a diorama curated by the son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that recreates the world contained within 221B Baker Street. 

In criminology, fashion is often disregarded — despite being a direct implication in numerous crimes. Matthews David’s studies intend to fill the gaps left by poor stitching. Matthews David’s research evidently extends to tales of true crime as well. In nineteenth-century Paris, police-run morgues would suspend clothing above the corpses to aid in their recognition and identification. Some people were identified by their clothing alone. 

Talk about drop-dead gorgeous. 

A thread in a case 

Even before the era of COVID-19, we relied on cloth for protection. But it turns out that protection isn’t the only use for our clothes — they can also be used in grisly crimes. 

Of the many cases Matthews David recounted in her lecture, a case from 1869 stands out. According to her research, the police discovered a putrefying dismembered leg submerged in a well in Paris. The forensic scientist’s investigation concluded that the leg was severed by someone of skill — not necessarily at the level of a medical professional, but it was certainly distinctive. 

It was clothing evidence that ended up being the most vital clue in this investigation. 

The legs were wrapped in a piece of black cotton fabric and tied in a very specific knot known as the rabbit ear knot, a style that was very distinctive of working-class tailors in the 1800s. 

This led the investigator onto the trail of a tailor in the area, and then to a seamstress whose recognition of her unique stitching in the cloth led them to the culprit. 

Artifact and user 

From the sole of a shoe to a uniquely coloured thread, our fashion choices undoubtedly show our individuality. Clothing is not only for utility, but for self-expression. 

Though the thought may not pass our minds often, criminal investigations are all-encompassing — even something as seemingly trivial as our style can change the game. The implications of fashion in crime run deeper than criminology likes to let on, and Matthews David’s work is vital to changing that perception. 

Identifying markers are everywhere. Every action we make is a self-portrait, and our clothing choices are no different. 

Although the thought of being implicated for the way you tie your shoes can be unsettling, it’s not a bad thing that we choose to express ourselves through dress. It shows our personality, and at the very least, makes us look good as hell.

After all, who’s to say a street gang can’t look criminally gorgeous?