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October 23, 2017
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An image from c.1897 paired with one from 2000. Source: partnouveau.com.

"I have come to the realisation that much of the creative material produced and designed today has its roots in a previous incarnation or is essentially part nouveau," writes creator and developer Lilah Ramzi on her popular website, named after this very concept.

Such awareness is demonstrated by Ramzi through her posting of vibrant and imaginative fashion photographs from the past side-by-side with similar or identical contemporary images. Often the likeness is striking - if not identical. The descriptions below each image indicate the sources. Time lapse between partnered photographs ranges from a few months to decades or even centuries.

American and Chinese Vogue covers part nouveau

The similar American and Chinese Vogue covers.
Source: partnouveau.com.

The purpose of the site, as Ramzi highlights herself, is to "aid our contemporary eyes, so used to being presented with the newest and latest within the creative world, to recognise and give credit to what has come before." 

Ramzi sources her images from multiple outlets including retail advertisements, runways photos, and classic paintings. One of her most frequently utilised sources is Vogue magazine, perhaps due to her position as an American Vogue Production Assistant.

With a Masters in Costumes Studies from New York University, of which she graduated in 2013, Ramzi has an unquestionable eye for spotting such trends. On December 25, 2013, Ramzi posted two images from Vogue's archives. On the left is the April 1950 cover of American Vogue.

Photographed by Irving Penn, the black-and-white image features model Jean Patchett adorned in a wide-brimmed hat, a couple neck scarfs, and a full-faced net veil. Her body appears stiff, as she stands upright with her hands on her hips. On the right is a photo from Chinese Vogue's December 2013 editorial. Another renowned fashion photographer, Mario Testino, snapped actress and model Shu Qui, whose outfit and stance are indistinguishable from that of the American Vogue cover.

The simple yet effective layout of Ramzi's website provides a shocking effect for readers. Side-by-side, the images allow the audience to quickly distinguish the uncanny similarities between past and present fashion photos. What once appeared to a modern audience as being new and original quickly transforms into a duplicate and, in some cases, a nearly exact replica.

Related: Christian Louboutin - Seeing Red

It also begs the question of where we draw the line between artistic inspiration and copying. Are we moving into a modern era that is lacking in genuine creativity, or are we just a generation intrigued by history, looking to be inspired and energised by the ideas that have come before us? 

Are we moving into a modern era that is lacking in genuine creativity, or are we just a generation intrigued by history, looking to be inspired and energised by the ideas that have come before us?

When it comes to fashion designs, strict legislation has begun to infiltrate the industry. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has made it their mission to articulate the difference between plagiarising designs and using them as a template. In particular, they aim to protect the intellectual property of three-dimensional designs such as clothing and accessories.

The importance of such protection is highlighted on the CFDA's website: "The greatest asset a designer has is their creativity. The satisfaction of purchasing and then wearing a designer brand comes from knowing the investment of human capital that went into that product, knowing and respecting the creative mind that imagined it in the first place." 

The CFDA has gone about implementing such safeguarding in a variety of ways. From a legal standpoint, they have lent their vocal support to the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act.

Part of this bill, brought into session by the 112th congress in July 2011, endeavours to prevent "substantially identical" wares entering the market. The bill defines this as being "an article of apparel which is so similar in appearance as to be likely to be mistaken for the protected design, and contains only those differences in construction of design which are merely trivial."  

In addition to its legal efforts, CFDA has worked with eBay (a place where sellers often try their luck at selling counterfeit and replica goods to unsuspecting buyers), in order to craft a movement that raises awareness of the industry's difficulties with intellectual property. The campaign was a collection of exclusive tote bags with the inscription "YOU CAN’T FAKE FASHION."

Intellectual property rights have also been addressed in Europe. The European Union is particularly superior in its protection of original ideas, as well as in its enforcement against knockoffs. As Ceci Guicciardi writes for The Business of Fashion in July 2011, "In practice, designers [in the UK] register a design right for particularly iconic, carry-over pieces that meet the dual requirements of novelty and distinctiveness." This offers straightforward protection. They also rely on "an automatic unregistered design right for other pieces that display the statutory level of originality [...] In the case of an unregistered design, the right holder must present a clean chain of evidence."

Related: What Would Picasso Do?

Yet the lines are far more blurred in terms of copying and inspiration when it comes to fashion photography; an element that is not included within the 2011 bill, and which is harder to protect using the standard trademark and copyright logos. For Ramzi, such creativity is not about comprehensive originality though. As she explained to The Genteel, "It's impossible for fashion not to utilise the past, but that doesn't mean that this prevents us from going forward."

Part Nouveau's creator Lilah Ramzi

Part Nouveau's creator, Lilah Ramzi. 
Source: partnouveau.com.

She continues, "I don't see fashion as cyclical; fashions are never precisely reincarnated." With this comes areas of grey amongst the black and white, suggesting that to call all the photographs on Part Nouveau 'copies' would be misleading.

Likewise, the act of inspiration in these instances is not absolute. "When thinking technically, the fields of fashion and fashion photography are quite limited," Ramzi explains. "A square of fabric has been used to clothe the body for centuries and there are only so many ways to cut, sew and drape that square before it starts to look like something we've seen before. The same goes for fashion photography, the formula of a beautiful girl in a beautiful dress has not changed."

It seems that a degree of replication will exist in all forms of inspiration. This does not mean we cannot evolve and, as Ramzi explains, in order to do so, we must simply learn to carefully understand the past and be able to apply it to modern work. "There are no new stories to be told, only new ways of telling these stories," notes Ramzi.

In order to stop artists from copying others' work too closely, the audience must first make a change themselves. "The public's perceived appreciation for a remake might be attributed to the fact that the general public is unaware that they are being presented with a remake in the first place," explains Ramzi. "I think the disconnect lies in the fact that many of these current artists are unaware that the general public is not familiar with the original work to begin with."

Mimicry cannot be fully omitted from creativity but, with education, there can be a decrease in its exploitation. This is not to say that everyone must cultivate a complete historical analysis of fashion in order to change the industry's outcome; however, as Ramzi suggests, "a bit of fashion history would do everyone some good." If we begin to recognise the inspiration behind each piece of work, perhaps the photographer or stylist will start to think twice about how they explore such creativity.

 Related: Image Mimicry

 Related: Inspiration and the Craft 

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