Originally published on April 6, 2017 in the Berkeley Beacon newspaper and on BerkeleyBeacon.com.
WORDS: Mia Zarrella
If copying is “the greatest form of flattery,” then stealing is the greatest form of self-improvement.
Copycats, mimics, trend-chasers, or the more colorful swagger-jacker are a variety of terms for a fairly normal behavior. To some extent, I think we have all copied something, whether it was a style of pants we saw on a friend or a makeup trend we saw on Instagram.
In math, science, art, and writing, plagiarizing is a punishable offense. Yet, there are no rules regarding plagiarizing style. It’s anarchy. Anybody can take your look. There is a commendable way to copy somebody and then there’s the shoddy way to do it.
Let me clarify that I’m talking about people who take your Reeboks and culottes, not your religion and culture. This is not a call to appropriate a culture’s artifacts and appearances for fashion purposes. This is about being a socially conscious copycat.
Writer T.S. Eliot saw the value in copying. He said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better.”
Eliot stole this quote from author W. H. Davenport Adams who 28 years earlier said “…great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”
T.S. Eliot’s version makes more sense to me. To me and Eliot, imitating is worse than stealing. Imitating, as opposed to emulating, is ingenuine and lacks creativity and personalization.
While imitation is superficial, stealing, on the other hand, is valuable. But, it is only respectable under one condition: You retain individuality. With stealing, you’re inspired by somebody else’s look, so you take it and make it your own. You’re not borrowing it or imitating it, you’re reimagining it.
Creating your individual style can be a time-consuming, soul-searching experience. It took me 20 years.
During high school, I wore floral Lilly Pulitzer dresses because it was a style I was exposed to while growing up in a beach town in southern Rhode Island. I never questioned it or asked myself if it felt right. College encouraged me to explore myself and meet new people, thereby I started exploring different styles. Today my wardrobe is a better manifestation of who I am and who I want to be.
To get to this point, I analyzed the fashion I enjoyed. I’ve always had an affinity for the minimal French wardrobe because I strive for simplicity, functionality, and timelessness.
Once I knew what I liked and why I liked it, I had to build my closet. I wanted a versatile wardrobe that could carry over from day into night, and summer into winter. I started following and studying bloggers that shared similar values. I stole and adapted, researched and reimagined, until I had a closet that was functional and representative of me.
I follow several personal guidelines: I don’t take from people close to me, I give credit to those I am inspired by, and I never steal a full look because there’s always a way to make it more personal and unique.
Copying and mimicking, on the other hand, lack the thoughtfulness that comes with stealing. Instead, they imply forging, reproducing, impersonating, or acting like somebody else.
For the person who chases the trend, adopting whatever style is in fashion, the world is a strip mall of ideas to take. There are even shopping sites like StealHerStyle.net which help people attain a celebrity’s entire outfit by providing shopping links to each garment. From coats and pants to purses and sunglasses, the website helps people attain the same appearance of somebody else in an affordable way.
There’s nothing necessarily bad about this, though. People inherently adopt the qualities of other people that they admire, whether those qualities be fashion or character traits. But large-scale imitation omits the introspective experience that comes with developing individual style. Instead, the person just becomes a knockoff of another individual.
I’ve seen cool streetwear on Rihanna and great hair styles on the Kardashian-Jenner family. I appreciate their styles, but I know that Pumas and platinum hair isn’t my look, so I don’t try to look like them. Fast fashion stores knock off brands all the time and make a substantial amount of money doing it. It’s not honorable, but it’s lucrative. Yet, who wants to be a knockoff when you could be the real thing?
To mimic is to do yourself an injustice. To steal, on the other hand, is to recognize that what somebody else is wearing would enhance one’s own true style.
Style stealing is a misunderstood, complicated art—then again, isn’t most great art complicated?