In our latest column, "Ask a Fashionista," you can solicit our strongly held opinions on everything from how to wear a midi skirt without looking like a tree stump to whether a certain retail CEO should go ahead and resign already. Have a question? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Last summer, I fell in love with a dress a colleague wore to a formal work event. Recently, it went on sale and I snatched it up without mentioning it to her, and now I want to wear it to an event she's probably going to be at next week. What do I do? Should I ask her permission? I would hate to show up in the dress without saying anything to her. — Ela, New York, NY
Oh, the anxiety of influence. There is a thin line between being inspired by someone else's style and being a copy cat. But it's inevitable — the people we meet affect the way we get dressed or cut our hair or decide to pair sneakers with trousers. One of my friends owes her now very distinct and personal sense of style to her brother's high school girlfriend, whom she started copying as a teenager and never stopped. Thankfully his relationship is long over so she's avoided the awkwardness, but when the person who has inspired you has a reoccurring role in your life, managing that influence requires some tact.
For the very specific situation mentioned in this week's question, there are a couple of options for how to handle it. The easiest is to not mention it to the colleague, before or during the event, and pray she doesn't wear the same thing. Another is to contact her before to let her know she inspired your purchase and that you plan to wear it. The third option is to not contact her beforehand, just show up in the dress and casually slip into conversation that you loved the dress on her and decided to get it yourself.
I reached out to three women in the fashion industry over e-mail to get some professional advice, and everyone agreed that honesty, up front, is the best policy. Jane Keltner de Valle, fashion news director of Glamour, advised "full transparency." She added, "It would only be weird if a) this were the 10th thing you saw her wearing and then bought for yourself (hello, single white female) or b) you didn't acknowledge it at all and then showed up at the party in the dress. Another reason to let her know now is in case she too is planning on wearing it to the party, in which case it would be polite to give her first right of refusal." Freelance stylist Laurel Pantin agrees: "A quick text or email like, "I totally copied you. Your dress was too good and I had to get it also. I was thinking I might wear it to that party, but wanted you to have first dibs! No worries at all if you wanted to wear it!"
Carrie Goldberg, associate fashion editor at Martha Stewart Weddings, says that there are no hard or fast rules about how to handle the situation. "There's no need to be apologetic for owning the same fabulous dress; in fact, confidently owning up to being inspired by her look last summer should smooth out any initial awkwardness. If anyone understands that this dress was just too cool to pass up, it's her."
The takeaway here is that the best way to avoid an awkward situation is to get ahead of it. And by mentioning it casually to the colleague, you can both let her know that you plan to wear it (so hopefully she will tell you if she was planning to do the same) and let her know that your imitation is indeed a sincere form of flattery, and not a form of fashion plagiarism.