am I unoriginal?
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dear mixed feelings,
My best friend has a really clear sense of style. She works in fashion and since I met her a few years ago, I’ve noticed I’ve started copying her sense of style—buying things that look like what she’d wear, sometimes even buying the same items she has. I know this isn’t inherently bad—imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say right? But for some reason, it bothers me that I do this, I think because I hate feeling like I’m just copying her and that I’m unoriginal.
Every time I’m shopping I think “would she wear this?” and that influences my decision to buy it. It seems silly to care so much about clothes, but I want to express myself clearly and have imaginative outfits like she does in my own way but I don’t know how. There’s also part of me that wants to differentiate myself from her since we do everything together and I sometimes feel guilty about this. Is any style truly original? How do I develop my own sense of style? — Accidentaltwin, she/her
When I was in seventh grade, a girl in my class approached me during P.E. and asked point-blank if I had copied her hairstyle. Heat rose from inside my chest, up my neck and onto the apples of my cheeks. Panicked, I stammered out, “No! My aunt wears hers like this too!” I wasn’t sure if my classmate bought the lie, but it was the best I could do on the spot. The truth is that I had copied her hairstyle, and in hindsight it wasn’t surprising she’d noticed. We were the only girls in our small class with long, thick, frizzy hair, and she had a cute way of wearing hers in a sort of intentionally messy-looking bun, which made the curls and frizz seem almost poetic. It was her signature look, and I’d made it mine as well.
In middle school in particular, to be a copycat was among a select number of cardinal sins, outranked only by telling teachers they forgot to assign homework or neglecting to save your best friend one of the good muffins that always run out of at recess. I vividly remember how embarrassed I was to be caught in the act of being one. Even though your friend hasn’t called you out for copying her like my classmate did, I imagine your impetus behind asking for advice stems from a similar feeling. You’re embarrassed about copying her style, not only because we’re conditioned to think of copying as bad, but also because of what copying someone implies: that we lack the ability to be “original.”
imitation vs. inspiration
You acknowledge that copying isn’t inherently bad, and that imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery. I agree with that, and I actually think that imitation and inspiration are often conflated. Broadly speaking, they have very different social connotations (imitation = bad; being inspired = good), which makes the glorification of originality and the manner in which we’re supposed to navigate pursuing it a bit confusing at times.
Consider how many mechanisms there are in place for us to be “inspired” by the choices other people are making around us. Instagram allows users to tag the brands they are wearing and in some cases even directly link out to the shopping page so that followers can purchase those exact items—a practice that is both ubiquitous and encouraged. Spotify lets us follow and listen to other people’s playlists. Goodreads lets us see what books our friends are reading so that we can read them too. The Strategist has a franchise called “Steal My Registry” where tastemakers enthusiastically share the items they put on their wedding registries for the explicit purpose of letting other people…“steal” their ideas.
I reached out to psychologist Dr. Juli Fraga for an expert perspective, and she affirmed that there can be a murky kind of overlap between mimicry and inspiration. “It depends on how far one takes the copying,” she said. “Certainly, buying the same shoes your friend has isn’t the same as copying their entire closet, hairdo, and the way they talk.” The former is more likely to stem from admiration and inspiration: “Perhaps you really admire your friend and strive to be more like them, or find their sense of style inspiring,” Dr. Fraga continued. A distinction that might allow for a little more self-compassion.
the problem with “originality”
It doesn’t seem like you’ve detected any annoyance on your friend’s end, and the fact that she works in fashion means she’s in the business of inspiring other people stylistically, so it probably doesn’t faze her when that translates over to her personal life. But ultimately none of that matters if your urge to copy her continues to bother you.
You feel a strong desire to express yourself through sartorial decisions that are uniquely your own; to stop asking yourself “would she wear this?” when you’re shopping and instead know instinctively if you would buy it regardless. Believe me, I get it. These are desires and questions that anyone with an interest in self-expression through style wrestles with, myself included. You asked if any style is truly original, and my answer to that is most of the time, no. Almost everything is a reference to or an iteration of something else, which is part of what makes style such a powerful language. It’s not something that exists in a vacuum, and if it were, it would lose a lot of its magnetism. The whole point is that we’re using it to communicate with each other.
That’s why it’s misleading—not to mention stressful!—to equate developing your own sense of style with complete and total originality. The end result is less sharply delineated—a little more fluid and an ongoing process that is part of the pleasure of getting dressed. If you want to get tactical with it though, I would suggest making a list (or an iPhone photo album, if visuals are easier) of things you’ve worn and liked or don’t own yourself but admire. Maybe you bought or admired some of these things because your friend wore them. That’s okay. The point here is to drill down on exactly what drew you to them, and identify themes that might not have anything to do with your friend. Be as specific as possible. Are there any consistencies in color? Brand? Silhouette? Can you attribute certain emotions or experiences to various outfits or purchases? Are you attracted to clothes that make you feel extroverted? More at-ease? Quirky? Sophisticated?
Answering these questions will help you paint a tangible picture of what your personal style is, one you can use to gut-check future purchasing or styling decisions, at least until it becomes second nature. On occasion you might still be compelled to buy the same pair of shoes as your friend or wear a similar outfit, but you’ll know exactly what is driving you to do so, and that motivation will be entirely your own.
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