Patsy Neill, 1929. Justice & Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums.

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To the detective Sherlock Holmes, a stained cuff or battered hat could reveal a man’s inner secrets and prove his guilt or innocence. Today’s TV series depict forensic experts identifying victims or convicting criminals based on a few fibres, a single footprint, or a bloodstained shirt. Clothing can be the most important clue in a criminal case, but dress and accessories play a much more slippery role in crime than these narratives suggest.

The word clue comes from the history of cloth—a “clew” was a ball of yarn or thread that could help guide people in or out of a labyrinth. Clues were linked to crime only in the nineteenth century, when they became forms of evidence in formal police investigations. This project posits the dress historian as investigator, and we seek to sleuth out the central but complex role of dress and accessories used as weapons and protection, examined as forensic evidence, and as actors in the process of disguising of and identifying individuals. Like Theseus following Ariadne’s thread or “clue” through the maze, the Fabric of Crime project will unravel how dress and accessories were used to commit and investigate crime from ca.1840-1940.

Watch this space and we will populate it as we go along. The project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), will result in a book, a crime and footwear exhibition entitled Exhibit A and co-curated with Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator and Creative Director of the Bata Shoe Museum (November 2022) a conference (TBA) and ongoing additions as my MA Fashion students at Ryerson University work on their own projects in my Re-Dressing Crime seminar next semester.

– Dr. Alison Matthews David

A jacket and vest that had been in a bomb explosion laying flat on a table

Rodolphe-Archibald Reiss, Suit with explosive residues, The Case of the Bomb in Sion, Switzerland, 1907, Reiss Archives, Université de Lausanne (UNIRIS).

Watch Dr. Alison Matthews David discuss how 19th and early 20th century citizens, criminals, and police used dress to commit and detect crime in a presentation hosted by the National Arts Club.