The Gentle Art of Quoting (or Copying?)

According to the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, the ideal eternal history is the perfect course through which all nations pass: history is presented as a cycle of rise and fall, and every nation endlessly courses and recourses through this cycle. As a fashion nerd, as a teacher and as a careful observer of the world, I think this theory can be applied to the world of fashion iconography as well. Trends and images from the past are constantly brought to the present, where they’re given new life and thus made eternal. This interesting cycle has got its downside, of course: I totally understand the charm of everything coming from the past, because I’m a total nostalgic myself, but the thin line between homage and copy nearly disappears.

This is the case of Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 campaign, shot by Steven Meisel and starring three lovely top models – Christy Turlington, Natalia Vodianova and Karen Elson. I knew about this campaign via Tavi’s Twitter and I really got excited when I first saw it. The three beautiful women are sporting an irresistible 50s look – ponytails, full-skirted dresses and all – while sitting in front of mirrors, surrounded by Vuitton boxes and shoes.

I must admit excitement was soon followed by a sort of bitterness, because I had just had one of my ‘image short-circuits’, which usually mean ‘deja-vu’ in my mind. Not exciting at all. Last night I found the time to flip through one of my favourite fashion coffee books – Chanel: Collections and Creations by Daniéle Bott – and here it is, the guilty photo.

Sorry for the quality of the picture I took, but my scan is not properly working. This photo was taken by the one and only Helmut Newton for a Vogue Paris photoshoot, in 1964, that means forty-six years old. The word genius (from the Latin genere, that is to create) is often misused, but I must use it whenever I’m writing about Newton. He was a genius, and this is clear from the absolute and modern creativity emerging from his works. It’s clear Meisel took inspiration from this picture, because its composition is the same as Vuitton’s. Mirrors with lightbulbs on the frame, old-fashioned chairs, shoes on the floor, boxes and bags on the counters, are all elements taken from Newton’s picture.

I know my opinion has no importance, but this clear rip-off of such a source has kind of let me down. I don’t think Vuitton and Chanel aesthetics could be ever compared (in my mind, Chanel will always win, no doubt about it); at the same time, I think one can try to look like Newton, but he is destined to fail, because Newton’s mastery and vision of life were pretty unique.

All the fashion websites are ranting and raving about this campaign. It’s brilliant, because it brings 50 glamour back, but knowing this is just one of Vico’s “courses and recourses” in the history of fashion photography puts its originality in perspective. It’s true post-modern society and culture are based on the gentle art of quoting (or copying, it depends on how you see it; maybe we should ask Lady GaGa and Christina Aguilera, who both “took inspiration” from Madonna for their latest videos) someone else’s work, but this time I cannot see it as a quote/homage: it only looks like a rip-off, period.

Fortunately, the dresses and accessories seen in the pictures are so beautiful, and this somehow makes my disappointment milder. Full skirts, corsets and opera gloves come from the past, yet still retain a unique charm.

The most interesting thing of the campaign (you can see it here as a whole) is the choice of the models. They are different in many ways, but are all famous for their classic and versatile beauty. Moreover, they can be considered symbols of their generations. Christy Turlington’s career started in the 80s and immediately became huge (just remember she was one of Gianni Versace‘s favourite models, and was part of the infamous Triad, which also included Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell). Karen Elson became successful in the 90s: she posed for Versace, too, sporting a blonde short bob. Last but not least, Natalia Vodianova, the Russian-born Cinderella, reached a huge success in the 2000s. I also like the fact that they’re all mothers, and that they all have careers other than modelling.

When I first saw the styling of the campaign, my attention was immediately focused by Karen Elson’s fiery hair, with bangs and ponytail. The same hairstyle is sported by Christy and Natalia, but Karen’s is the only one which made my fashion nerd’s twisted mind – always looking for references – run once again. If you were a child in the late 70s, you’ll probably remind this Mattel boardgame, Barbie Queen of the Prom.

I’ve never owned it, but the daughter of one of my mother’s colleagues at school did, and I really loved playing it. As you probably know, in Italy we’ve never had the tradition of the prom, so the game had a very special (and exotic) meaning to me at the time [1].

The 60s-style Barbie on the cover of the game – with her crown, bangs and ponytail, plus the prim and proper pearl necklace – was used by Tarina Tarantino for a line of the Barbie-inspired jewelry collection she launched in 2006.

The collection included a line with Barbie’s black silhouette – again with bangs and ponytail – on a pink background.

The same decorative motif has been used by Patricia Field for these ghetto-fabulous hoop earrings. A stylized version of the same silhouette – minus the bangs – appeared on the items of the Barbie Loves MAC collection, launched in 2007.

What are your opinions about this campaign? Is it a homage to Newton, or rather a plain rip-off?

[1] You won if you were the first player to be crowned Queen of the Prom.  In order to win you had to have a boyfriend, a prom dress and to be elected president of a school club.

Source, source, source and source.

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9 comments

  1. i gues the line between referencing and copying is getting thinner and thinner. Personally I find that we are experiencing an information (especially visual) overload of such proportions that it allows for more or less shameless copying, because the ordinary viewers are so “stuffed” with images it will be hard for them to make connections and remember whether they have seen it before- they just swallow them whole without giving them a second look.
    Of course, those among the viewers that spend a but more time on images will often have this deja-vu feeling- personally the whole composition of this photo feels so “old”- not just in terms of the obvious reference to Newton, but also the mirrors, the “backstage” feeling- it reminded me on this photo, seen on Geakaren’s blog, mainly for the dresses and games of reflections in the mirrors- i don;t know who this photo is by

    what bothers me about this picture is that, without knowing the background, i.e. Newton’s picture, one could easily think it’s Meisel’s idea and go like “Oh, what a great idea, so different…” etc etc.
    Now, having said all this- the photos and the dresses are really beautiful.

    1. I totally agree with what you wrote. Shamelessly copying is becoming easier and easier because of what you aptly call ‘information overload’. Just think of people (Lady GaGa is the first name that comes to my mind) who have built their own careers on this concept. The worst thing is precisely what you said: only a few can detect the copy, while the rest (most of the people, to be honest) just think they’re experiencing something truly new and original.

  2. I like the ads (esp. because of the clothes style and the different beauty ages), but I think Meisel was, ahem, definitely *inspired* by this pic, as he was by others all through his career. I hated most of his 90s Vogue Italia editorials for this reason. It’s a thin line though, like Brian De Palma and Hitchcock.
    You got to have a bit of talent of your own to successfully “homage”:-)

    (PS: have you ever visited the Newton museum in Berlin? Is it good?)

    1. The example of Brian de Palma is so right in this context! Just compare his work and Quentin Tarantino’s: in both cases, quotes and references are extremely important, but the results are very different.

      Steven Meisel has never been one of my favourite fashion photographers because I think he lacks a groundbreaking and personal style. I loved the campaign he shot for Dolce & Gabbana in the 90s with Linda Evangelista (there, the reference was to Marilyn Monroe and Italian divas of the 50s/60s, nothing really original, after all, but the result was brilliant), but nothing more. Unfortunately, the destiny of Vogue Italia is still connected to his name, which is a pity because his style hasn’t gone through an evolution, but just goes with the flow in most cases.

      I’ve never visited Newton’s museum in Berlin. Hopefully, I’ll do it when I visit that amazing city again.

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  4. I find it immensely sad that the original creator will never get enough credit for his work. But it probably also has to do with the natural effect of Time. In five years’ time perhaps nobody would remember that the pioneer of Lady Gaga’s style was Madonna… Because the people of today only know and recognise what exists today.

    In this case I prefer the original Helmut Newton for Chanel advertisement. It has to do with the space in the photograph. Steven Meisel’s campaign is much too cluttered. One doesn’t know what to focus on. One just sees a mess of things (and beautiful things these are, yet the photography fails to bring out their beauty).

    1. I totally agree with what you wrote. Like you correctly point out, this is one of the main problems in our contemporary visual world: people only know what exists today and no one cares of possible relations of the new with the old. I think this is extremely sad and disturbing, because it is as if there’s an urgency to erase the past or a carelessness to it. I’m a nostalgic, so I can’t conceive a present or a future without the past, but I’m sure the opposite attitude will bring no good to culture.

      I prefer Newton’s picture for hundreds of reasons: it’s elegant and classy without being showy or messy, and it conveys a sense of relaxed refinement, all qualities which are missing in Meisel’s campaign.

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