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Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov

Is thorough fashion research the key difference between referencing and copying?

When does referencing stop and copying begins? On Thursday, the 3rd of December, researcher, lecturer, and former pathway leader of Fashion Communication at Central Saint Martins, Oleg Mitrofanov launched a series of online lectures on 20th-century fashion with writer and historian Judith Watt. The inaugural talk explored the lines between getting inspiration and copying and it was live-streamed via Oleg’s platform Atelier Research.

“The difference between that and copying is that when you reference you give a credit.” – Judith Watt

“There’s been a blood sport going on with Diet Prada, in calling out and cancelling,” Watt told Mitrofanov and their virtual audience, made up of a mix of industry professionals, UAL alumni and Watt’s ever eager 1st and 2nd-year students. “Referencing is much more complex, it’s a much newer word,” Watt stressed. “It can mean a lot of things, the difference between that and copying is that when you reference you give a credit.”

The lecture went straight into a recent case study for referencing vs copying; JW Anderson and Oscar Wilde. “It’s denigration and a hook for doing something,” Watt stated, in response to the designer’s recent capsule collection which supposedly paid homage to the queer icon through intarsia floral knitwear, straw bucket hats, and oversized t-shirts emblazoned with Wilde’s handwriting. “He wrongly claims Oscar Wilde was Northern Irish,” Watt continued on her takedown, identifying the subtle way Anderson credits himself with Wilde’s work and persona whilst touching on the collection’s release coinciding with world AIDS day. “Everyone in fashion wants to be an intellectual now,” she explained, categorising the collection as an example that exceeds the notion of inspiration.

Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
JW Anderson's capsule collection featured Wilde's handwriting and exceeded the notion of inspiration according to Watt.

“It is about referencing ideas rather than the image itself” – Oleg Mitrofanov

As the talk continued, Watt and Mitrofanov introduced multiple examples of contemporary fashion images shown alongside their possible historical inspirations. An editorial by Ib Kamara was shown along-side Thomas Gainsborough’s 1768 portrait of Ignatius Sancho. “It’s a lovely collusion of his own words and an image, you unpack it and it’s not quite what you’re seeing,” Watt mused, linking the presence of second-hand clothes in Sancho’s own life with Kamara’s expert ability to create an assemblage with high fashion garments and found objects. “So it is about referencing ideas rather than the image itself,”  Mitrofanov notes for Watt to conclude: “It is about researching the truth.” The sartorial sermon then moved to Bronzino and Judy Blame. “The reference is the colour,” she compared Bronzino’s 1530’s Portrait of a Young Man to a photographic portrait of Blame, both dressed all in black, posed with hands on their hips and staring directly at the viewer. These case studies had the common point of getting inspired by some elements and creating something completely new, exceeding respect to the inspiration whilst remaining original and fresh.

Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
Comparing Bronzino’s 1530’s Portrait of a Young Man (left) with Judy Blame's portrait (right)

Throughout the lecture, Watt touched on many topics that have defined her career as a writer and an educator. Alexander McQueen, whom Watt has a published book on, shown alongside Jean Fouquet’s “divinely erotic,” 1452 Melun Diptych, which was compared to Nick Knight’s now-iconic portrait of McQueen for the April 1998 issue of The Face, and his A/W 1997 collection: It’s a Jungle out There, before she compared Venetian costume to Plato’s Atlantis. Speeding onto Marie Antoniette’s chemise, showing it alongside Maison Margiela S/S 1995, Watt clarified: “She’s the last thing you’d associate with Margiela.” True; maybe the more unlinked are two points the more original and intact they remain. “This isn’t a copy, it’s an inspiration,” the definitions between the two are often muddy but most of the times a copy screams its source from the very first glance.

Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
McQueen on the cover of The Face , Joan, 1997, Shot by Nick Knight, ref. Agnes Sorel
Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
Jean Fouquet's Madona of the Melun Triptych 1452-1455
Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
Marie Antoinette in her "Chemise gown" by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1783
Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
Martin Margiela SS 1995

Towards the end, Watt touched on the phenomenon of designers being drawn to similar inspirations. Her example of this was John Everett Millais’ Ophelia. “Why does it appeal to so many designers?” Mitrofanov prompted, “It has an incredible appeal, it’s about mental illness, insecurity, and tragedy.” Comparing the iconic painting to the boho aesthetics of Alessandro Michele’s campaigns for Gucci, “He has a fascination with pale and fae English people,” she stated whilst showing images of Jane Morris and Gaia Mitchell alongside Gucci muse Florence Welch. Finally landing on the cultural tropes of vampirism, Simone Rocha’s white communion dresses and Luisa Casati, comparing them with the costumes for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Tilda Swinton for Acne Paper and John Galliano for Dior. “Fashion design has become a costume, think about Edwin Mohney and Sandy Powell,” she concluded, offering a final example of fashion’s reliance on strong and thorough research and the effect of this on eccentric runways.

Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
1852 J.E Millais, Ophelia
Creative Director: Alessandro Michele, Art Director: Christopher Simmonds, Gucci 2018
Florence Welch for Gucci Bloom
Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
Eiko Ishioka
Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola, 1992
Referencing and Copying in Fashion: Judith Watt in Conversation with Oleg Mitrofanov
Simone Rocha SS20

“We were supposed to have one hour but you got two” Mitrofanov joked as he drew the talk to a close, which I’m sure prompted a wave of virtual laughter from the digital audience. But this is only the epilogue, Watt and Mitrofanov plan to continue their fashion discourse later in December with a series of lectures expanding on the work of McQueen and Galliano along with Elsa Schiaparelli. So stay tuned for more.

 

You can watch the full talk here

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