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Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but...

For the most part, I'm nobody's idea of a style maven. Though sometimes, once in a blue moon, I'm made to feel like one.

Case in point: last month, I posted a new picture of myself on Facebook. It being a Very Happy Place, the online compliments were soon forthcoming: "Oh wow, where did you get that dress? I'm going to start a career as your impersonator," wrote one friend. And, like a fool, I told her exactly where to buy the dress in question. Little did I know that she meant what she wrote literally; within days, she had posted up a profile picture of herself, resplendent in the very same dress.

And -- to make matters worse -- looking infinitely better in it.

A week later, I made the fatal error of bragging about another sartorial find on Facebook. Truth be told, it was a style coup; a skater dress that clings and fits to the right places, and all for the price of a song. One friend was unabashed in her admiration: "I'm going straight online to buy it!" she exclaimed. Another emailed to say that she'd bought the same dress. In three shades. They do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but instead I felt, well . . . threatened.

Things came to a head earlier this week when a friend emailed me to find out the exact hair colour that I use. Now, given that my hair colour isn't my own and is, in fact, decreed by those very kind people at L'Oreal, it seems a little churlish of me to get irked by this. But again, far from taking the compliment, I felt my heckles rise. It was almost as though a weird rivalry of sorts had been sparked.

Of course, I'm no slouch in the copycat department either. If I'm asking you where you got your lovely coat, there's a very good chance I'm already mentally running into the store and rifling through the racks. Though I don't call it copying; rather, I'd be inclined to call it 'giving into my style crush' (Imelda May: I'm looking at you here).

A hairstyle here, a quirky accessory there; it's not quite a glowing tribute to that person . . . more a proverbial doffing of the cap to someone more original and creative than I could ever be.

The reasons for such copyism are plentiful. We live in an age where we buy magazines and log onto fashion mags simply to ape the A-list.

We've been conditioned to covet and approximate other women's personal style, no matter how outlandish. And very few people are born stylish.

Rather, style icons are created, often through years of trial and error. And, yes, picking up tips from others. Anyone with more than a passing interest in clothes is constantly on the lookout for inspiration, ideas and flourishes of style that will get us noticed.

Of the idea that the high street and celebrity culture engenders copyism, stylist and personal shopper Sorcha Loughrey notes: "In the past celebrities were just that -- celebrated stars and I believe that while women had aspirations sartorially, they were in no way fiscally able to match their idols, nor had they access to that world.

"Now that celebrity embraces all facets of fame and social networking has made everybody accessible, we know every aspect of our idols' lives. This, of course, also extends to their wardrobes. We have access to every aspect of a person's style and there are also many high-street stores copying designer pieces making their look affordable to everyone."


And, at a time when the high street is as vibrant as ever, there's every likelihood that you'll know someone who has bought the same Penneys dress as you. Yet herein lies the curious rub; ubiquitous though it may be, a style doppelganger is depicted largely as a major faux pas. From the snark of the glossy posse's 'who wore it best?' columns to a red-carpet disaster, wearing the same outfit as someone else is right up there with the Juicy Couture tracksuit in terms of fashion crimes.

Lady Gaga may be the most imaginative fashion follower in pop these days, but few can get past her seemingly slavish devotion to Madonna. Likewise, The X Factor's Tulisa Contostavlos has found it hard to ignore rumblings that she is little more than a Cheryl Cole clone. Even celebrity trailblazers aren't impervious to accusations of style stealing.

So if indeed imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, why the apparent tension? In a way, it's a bit like having a gorgeous boyfriend that a friend is only too happy to hit on right in front of you. "Ultimately, someone's personal style, if they've worked hard at it, is something that has taken them years to hone and perfect," surmises one friend. "It's kind of not fair if someone swoops in and credits it as their own."

"I find it very frustrating when my look is copied, as I think each person's style is an individual statement," adds Sorcha. "I think style icons through the years have used this to their advantage. For example, Kate Moss has spearheaded many sartorial shifts throughout the past two decades and embraced the copycat culture by launching her own range with TopShop, therefore taking control of the fact that women from all walks of life wanted to 'be' Kate Moss."


Back in the civilian world, there are several ways to handle this scenario. Either adopt a trademark so outlandish that any copyists would be immediately exposed as (a) a nutter for trying, or (b) your slavishly devoted doppelganger. Far from worrying about your pal trying to look as attractive/stylish as you, try to take her copying as a compliment. Clearly, she doesn't have the courage of her own convictions and admires you greatly for doing so.

If you are a pilferer, it's often a good idea not to do so too close to home. If you are borrowing a friend's style, at least have the wherewithal not to show it when you meet up with her.

"I would advise women to be upfront about it, and perhaps say to their friend that they really admire their style and could they offer advice," suggests Sorcha. "Accessories are the best way to do this, rather than buying an entire wardrobe to mirror your pal's! A necklace, scarf or pair of shoes can completely alter your own look, without alienating the person who inspired it."

Meanwhile, I've learnt to keep my own finds to myself. To avoid a confrontation, I go vintage, where every garment is a one-off. So the next time friends ask, I sweetly reply with the catch-all response: "I got it online." Even if, in reality, it was something I picked up on my lunch break from TopShop that very week. Andy Warhol may have said that genius steals, but it's even more cunning to tell a few fashion fibs.