“Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”
- Pablo Picasso
An artist knows that at the very moment he completes a sculpture, a painting, a song, or a poem and lets it out into the vast abyss we call the world, his work is immediately subject to criticism, approbation, and of course imitation. But when Monet released Water Lilies, I doubt the following is the type of reproduction he had in mind. Googling “Monet dress” led me to discover I had more in common with Gayle King, Diana Argon and a few other celebrities than expected. Turns out we all sported my graduation dress, the en plein air “Revisited Impressionist Dress” by Tracy Reese which was once available at Anthropologie for the relatively affordable price of $298.
Now that I’ve exhausted the attempt to establish what is fashion/beauty in my previous post I can speculatively say, this artistic frock seems to qualify, certainly passing Hume’s test of time. What other dress can be worn with dashing élan by me, a young orthodox Jewess, a 16 year old movie star, a 26 year old silver screen icon, and a news anchor on the cusp of the big 6-0? But as usual, the obvious question on all the editors’ glossed and augmented lips is –WHO WORE IT BEST?
Let’s approach this chronologically; this is fashion we’re talking about and despite the constant kerfuffle it is supposed to be an orderly, beautiful discipline. June 4th 2012, I walk into the auditorium wearing the dress. Black Steve Madden platforms— an extra six inches never hurt anyone—as well as the edge of a black JCrew studded belt provide the perfect foil to the ultra-feminine print and darting. And the well-chosen modest addition– say, a white long-sleeved undershirt— made the ensemble all the more seductive.
Next on June 18 of that same year, Caroline Sunshine stayed true to her name illuminating the faces of fans and photographers at the premiere of Brave. The 16 year old kept the look chic pairing the busy garden number with nude pumps and a complimenting pink minaudière, channeling the focus where it should be. Usually au natural makeup and hair in addition to simple accessories equates to BORING, but Sunshine made a smart choice as the dress is a chef-d’oeuvre in and of itself.
The very next day a Glee-full Dianna Argon stole the show at a Coach party in New York City adding high fashion to the high Line. Diana sported the dress with a black belt featuring a filigree buckle, blue and black ombre Coach Legacy sunglasses, a Coach Legacy Clutch, and glittering Miu Miu Sandals, landing her a spot on oodles of best dressed lists. Has she forgotten that less is more?! That the wise Coco once said “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”? The dress’s grassy digital embankment, and painted girly garden print are already verging on an eye sore— the over accessorizing and filigreed belt do not do the fin de siecle Impressionists any justice.
As you all have eyes and a growing fashion sense from reading my posts, I’ll let you be the judge of the last two contenders; nonetheless, I must interject one point—boy does that bright print look great in contrast to Gayle King’s dark complexion, 10 points to the Oprah camp!
Since this whole gap year thing has made me adopt an I think therefore I philosophize modus operandi I must ask – Is all this imitation eating away at the vehicle of individual expression known as fashion? Is the fifth times the charm when it comes to this sartorial masterpiece?
Being the good Semgirl that I am, I first turned towards the Bible for clarification. After a good scratch on the head and mental “control f” of all the midrashim, agadot, sugyot,mishnayot, and halachot I’ve encountered, “imitation” received a bright yellow highlight in a most unexpected context: God.
Imitatio Dei, man’s obligation to imitate God is a central doctrine stemming from the biblical account of the creation of man in the image of God, acknowledging a resemblance between man and his Creator. Yet man is to imitate God, not impersonate Him (Gen. 3:5). Biblical sources for the injunction, call man to walk this way: in the command to be holy as God is holy and to walk in God’s way (Lev. 19:2; Deut. 10:12, 11:22, 26:17). Man is to be God-like in his deeds, but not aspire to be God, differentiating the biblical notion from the pagan attempts to achieve apotheosis or absorption in the deity. Man is to imitate God in resting on Shabbat (Ex. 20:10–11); loving the
little monster stranger (Deut. 10:18–19); and in other ethical moves. Surprisingly I’m not the only one mulling over the faux facet. In rabbinic literature Ḥama bar Ḥanina, expounds on the verse, “after the Lord your God you shall walk” (Deut. 13:5): “How can man walk after God? Is He not a consuming fire? What is meant is that man ought to walk after [imitate] the attributes of God. Just as the Lord clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as He visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforted the bereaved, so you shall also comfort the bereaved; just as He buried the dead, so you shall bury the dead” (Sotah: 14a).
Among medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides dealt most extensively with man’s copy rights when dealing with the ultimate Creator. The Spanish polymath enumerates “emulating God in His beneficent and righteous ways to the best of one’s ability” as part of the sacred commandments (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 8). For Maimonides the commandment intertwines with his famed fetish for the middle way. In his Guide of the Perplexed, the philosopher stresses that the acquisition of academic knowledge, especially that of God, should be the goal of human life, but in the final chapter of the Guide he holds that such knowledge leads to the imitation of God:”Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving kindness, justice, and righteousness and thus to imitate the ways of God” (Guide, 3:54).
In contrast to paganism, Judaism propounds copying not counterfeit: we should walk in the way of God, not strive to be God. Similarly in fashion, counterfeit is certainly unacceptable, illegal, and a highly punishable crime, but the borrowing of ideas, concepts, techniques, is sine que non for fashion. By its very definition, the French for fashion –mode—is mathematically understood as “the value that appears most often in a set of data”. Essentially fashion favors frequency over function, ubiquity over uniqueness.
Musicians, filmmakers, painters, and even Lady Gaga are legally protected against copying, under the premise that leaving work up for grabs, translates into ‘au revoir innovation’. But despite the recent retail rivalries like the red sole lawsuit between shoe king Christian Louboutin and the father of le smoking suit YSL, to the shock of many, copyright laws barely protect the fashion field. Yes, some couturiers have lost sales to knockoffs, but design replication has not been a serious menace to the survival of the chicest. Au contraire, much of the development and ingenuity of the industry hinges upon imitation.
Why the exception oh fashion gods? Well, it seems to be a corollary of what an English playwright picked up on back when women still frolicked in farthingales. As Shakespeare said, “the fashion wears out more apparel than the man.” Meaning, most of us go shopping not to satisfy a need, but to quench the thirst of staying au currant, a la mode, and away from societal jeers.
Sans patent fetters (no not the patent leather kind), companies can modify a design as they please and join the bandwagon of a projected profit reaping style. Mix it all together and what do you get? The industry’s holy doctrine: the trend. Imitation produces trends and trends sell fashion. Each summer-spring, winter-fall, Ready-to – Wear, Couture ,Cruise or however many ways you can divide time and styles to maximize production, design houses “get inspired” by each other(I’m taking to you Dior, we notice how you seemed to forget in your advertisements and products that you’re not Chanel). Chanel summed up the cycle echoing Hume’s on aesthetics as follows, “fashion fades; style is eternal.” Trends become “hot”, “not”, then a relic of seasons past until they’re revived with the kiss of a handsome editor or somehow lucky enough to earn the coveted title “vintage.” We all know this circle of clothes, this wheel of fashion, but we often turn a blind smoky eye to the fuel behind this fire— the freedom to fake.
Despite a recent punch to some designers thanks to the recession, overall since World War II the American fashion industry enjoys solid progress; clothing businesses accrue over $300 billion a year, employing millions. Undoubtedly some designers suffer losses from copying, but increased copyright ‘protection’ would bring prices up, the creative cycle down and ultimately lead to the torpid ungainly death of the industry we all love to hate, hate to love, but fund anyways— fashion.