For someone who works in a dark forensic lab, Rachael Donaldson certainly has a vibrant and bold sense of style. Known as @forensicfashionnotes on Instagram, the fingerprint analyst often shares outfit photos accompanied by forensic fun facts. PATTERN had the opportunity to talk to Rachael and uncover the mystery of how her fashion sense and career intersect with one another.
Katie Freeman: So, your Instagram bio describes you as a “Print examiner talking crime & inspiring you to add color & flair to what you wear.” What does a forensic print examiner do?
Rachael Donaldson: Yes, so a forensic print examiner –– we’re technically called a latent print examiner, but some people don’t know really what that means. Latent just means hidden. We get prints from crime scenes, or we get the evidence in the lab and we process it for prints, and if there are prints that are found, then there are photographs taken of them. Then I get them, and I have to determine whose print was left at the scene.
KF: How did you figure out that you were passionate about both fashion and forensics?
RD: It actually started when I was just a kid. I used to be obsessed with watching detective shows like Kojak. I always loved mysteries. This is kind of bizarre, but when I was six years old, my 16-year-old uncle Philip went to work one night and said he’d be home afterward, but he never came home. Three years later, there was an oil pit off of the road in Washington that the city finally decided to drain. When they did, they discovered Philip and his friend in the car, so they had driven off the road that night. I don’t know if that got me interested in forensics and solving crimes, but I wanted to help other people figure out what happened to their loved ones. I’ve always been curious and nosy; I always want to know why and what happened. As far as fashion goes, I was always really interested in that. The analytical side of my brain was focused on the investigation stuff and the artsy creative side of my brain was like, “How can I do art?” I’m not great at drawing or anything like that, so I was drawn to color. I’ve loved purple, orange, and green throughout my life. I’ve always put colors together that a lot of people thought I was crazy for pairing together. I was big on Esprit and Benetton and I had bulletin boards with outfits posted to them. I guess I don’t really know how those two things combined, but I’ve always been huge into color and what to wear and investigations.
KF: How do you see those two interests blend together in your everyday life?
RD: In my job, I have an eye for detail. I’m looking at the small minutiae of the prints and their shapes and patterns. I do that with my clothes as well. I like the embellished clothes; I like things with little prints and patterns and colors and things like that. At the same time, my job kind of dictates what I can and can’t wear too. I can’t color my hair any funky color or I would, because that’s me. I like to be colorful, but I can’t have visible tattoos, and I can’t wear open-toed or open-back shoes, so I have to select shoes that I can wear to work. I like to add bold color and brightness to my clothes because when I work in the lab, it’s really dark and gloomy. The basement of the Marion County Jail is where the lab is –– obviously, I see some not-so-great things every day. Adding my own flair to my work clothes helps brighten other people’s day when they see me in color.
Do your outfits differ when you’re on and off the clock?
They don’t really differ. I usually only go to work. I don’t do a whole lot of other stuff, especially with COVID. If I’m doing my own thing outside work, I end up being more casual, but I can’t do the casual thing very well. My work outfits are pretty much everyday outfits. What you see on Instagram is usually what I wore to work that day!
KF: How would you describe your personal style?
RD: It’s kind of all over the place, but I would definitely say colorful and bold. Probably feminine, and kind of a modern-type retro with a little bit of rock and roll added in, because I love music, so I have to always throw my music in there.
KF: How have you seen your style evolve throughout the years?
RD: I think I’ve gotten braver as I’ve gotten older. I’ve decided I really don’t care if people like what I wear or not because I’m not wearing it for them. I’m wearing it for myself. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable with mixing color, different weird color combos, and pattern mixing. I’ve just gotten more bold and brave with my style because it’s always kind of been the same kind of thing. It’s kind of funny because when I was a kid, I would run around in concert tees that were so big they just hung on me, but now we’re seeing everybody wearing concert tees or band tees. It’s coming back. Everything kind of does.
KF: When did you start sharing your outfits on social media?
RD: It was probably about eight or nine years ago. I never really paid that much attention to it. Somebody at work told me I should start doing it to see if I can get noticed, and I was just like, “Yeah right, whatever.” But it’s taken a long time to actually start getting into stuff that I really am interested in.
KF: So, once you started, what kept you coming back and posting more?
RD: People started reaching out to me. Not only to do collaborations, but there were people saying “Hey, you really inspire me! I’m coming out of my comfort zone and I’m going to wear more color now to brighten my day.” Not a whole lot of people would say that, but I thought if I’m making a difference for one person, maybe I’m making a difference for other people too and they’re just not saying anything about it. That kept me going and it made my day to think I could make a difference and make somebody feel better about themselves or more comfortable wearing what they want to wear.
KF: How do fashion and forensics combine together on your social media?
RD: I post forensic notes on forensic Fridays. I will post an outfit and either a fact about forensics or a case that I have worked on or been close to in a way. I never tell anything confidential that you can’t find on Google. But I kind of do this story that’s kind of related to my outfit. For instance, I had leopard print on my dress and I said “A leopard never changes its spots, just like your character will be unchanging,” and I told a story about a perpetrator of a crime, so I kind of link them together that way.
KF: What is a fashion staple that you can’t live without?
RD: I’ve got to go with my jean jacket. You can even dress fancy things down so you can wear them on a normal day. I know a lot of people are like, “I can’t wear that tulle dress.” Yeah, you can! Throw a jean jacket on with some sneakers and you’re good to go. I love to have a “completer” piece that makes the outfit complete, and jean jackets go with a lot of things. Except for jeans — I haven’t worn one with jeans yet, but I don’t wear jeans a whole lot.
KF: What goals do you have for the future?
RD: I’m starting to reach them! I really wanted to work with designers that I love, and that’s really coming to fruition. Eva Franco — she sells her clothes to Anthropologie. I’m an ambassador for her brand. I was chosen to be an ambassador for the Indy 500, which I’m super excited about. I’ve been hoping I would get chosen because my dad is a drag racer. It’s not Indy 500 racing, but I’ve always been into racing and cars and things like that. That was one of my goals, to work with the 500. My goal is to stick with Eva Franco and find some more brands to work with and start to make a little bit more money instead of just free products, which is fine for now because I have a full-time job. This is just a hobby. If I can get stuff that I would buy normally sent to me, then who am I to turn that down, you know? The goals are starting to be reached, though, so that’s a good thing!