Category Archives: Retro Style

1920s-ish


In my last post, I was stalled by indecision of how to proceed in making a 1920s day dress. I had a 1921 McCall’s pattern and a 1920s hat. But did my authentic vintage pattern look “20s enough” with its straight skirt rather than the pleats or flounces I associate with the decade? I booked my tickets to the Jazz Age Lawn party, and excitedly (and somewhat nervously) wondered what to sew.

My imaginings for making the 20s dress took me through hundreds of google images and  e-bay listings of 20s dresses and 1920s pattern catalogues. I noticed how the hemlines rose and fell during the decade. I observed accessories and that the iconic 20s cloche was not the only hat style of the time. And despite e-bay listings that combine two decades with “20s/30s dress,” I could clearly see the rather dramatic shift  from Twenties’ loose pull-over-the-head dresses to Thirties’ highly fitted dresses (enabled by a new trend of using zippers in dresses). I also learned more about my favorite fashion decade, the 1960s. I knew that Sixties’ styles were influenced by a 1920s revival, but looking through the Twenties designs I was still a bit surprised by how closely the two decades relate – simply take a Sixties drop-waist scooter dress, leave out the darts and make it out of a light, floaty fabric, and you have a 1920s flapper look. I contemplated working with one of my 1960s patterns instead.


Yet in the end, I sewed my 1921 McCalls pattern rather than a Sixties-does-Twenties flapper dress. I even kept the straight skirt design of the original pattern. However, beyond that, making the entire 20s lawn party look was an exercise in “Twenties-ish” improvisation. In sewing the dress pattern, I drew on imagery from different years within the decade rather than hewing strictly to 1921.  I lowered the skirt hem below the knee. Below-the-knee skirts were in style in 1924, so it was as if I was a 1920s seamstress who procrastinated three years to make her dress, and altered the hem accordingly. I added a pocket to fill out the deco curve. And I made a two-piece dress (a top and matching skirt) rather than a one-piece. While I did see a few matching tops and skirts in my 20s image search, they seemed like exceptions. That decision was an example of how the needs of the present shape how we represent the past – I need clothes I can mix and match rather than a 1920s dress that can only be worn to costume events, and the two-piece style gives me that option.


In terms of accessories,  I went with a wide-brimmed straw hat rather than my authentic velvet brown 20s cloche, which seemed too heavy for August. In completing the look, I simply thought “Art Deco.”  I associate my Whiting & Davis white mesh bag as deco style, but according to the label and the Vintage Fashion Guild, it’s a 1940s, not a 1920s. The bag matches a deco celluloid-and-rhinestone pin, and the pin in turn matches the straw decoration on the hat. Are they 20s? I don’t know. The t-strap shoes are four or five years old but look 20s-ish. The orange gloves? Who knows? And I don’t have an option other than my 1950s/1960s cat-eye glasses. I like the vintage look of the whole ensemble, but it’s not authentically 1920s. Will it pass as Twenties? We’ll see.

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Like vintage? Say why for a chance to win gift certificates!

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Hi there vintage fans!

I’ll continue with regular blog posts after Feb 15th. In the mean time, if you haven’t yet had a chance to complete my survey on why you wear vintage, then click on the link below and get started! If you complete a survey, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win 1 of 3 $30 etsy.com gift certificates, where you can find a huge selection of vintage clothing. You can find more info on the survey by clicking the link or by checking out my December 2015 blog post. Thanks and have a groovy day!

Click here to start vintage clothing survey

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Back to the fifties…I mean eighties

It’s been a relatively mild November here in Minnesota (today is our first real snow) and my go-to coat for the month has been this black-and-white houndstooth swing coat.The swish of the fabric as I walk  feels flirty and luxurious. The swing coat’s open front is perfect when a chilly morning turns into a more temperate fall afternoon.

Because swing coats were originally designed to cover those voluminous 1950s full skirts, they are also easy coats to wear with today’s layers. Swing coats also wonderfully offset the slim designs of tight-fitting wiggle dresses and suits of the 1950s. This is the look featured in the November calendar image on my Style 2015 wall calendar.  Of course this elegantly sketched model carries off the post-war style with a bit more panache. After all, she has the Arc de Triomphe within walking distance.

How many decades has this coat seen? How many floral, full-skirted dresses with flouncy tulle petticoats has it covered? What skinny wiggle dresses or fitted smart suits has it complemented? Did it once grace the shoulders of a 1950s secretary strolling on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis?

Well, it’s more likely that this particular swing coat just covered a tulle petticoat worn as a skirt, a la Cyndi Lauper. Or perhaps it covered an oversized t-shirt paired with stirrup pants and pointy-toed ankle boots (remember that 80s look?)

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Just as we recently witnessed a 1950s revival under the influence Mad Men (which premiered in 2007), movies and television shows (like Happy Days, which ran from 1974-1984) set in the 1950s inspired a “Back to the Fifties” fashion revival in the 1980s.

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Thus my “Fifties Swing Coat” is a reproduction – a bit of 1980s retromania where clothing companies released 50s styles  in the hope of cashing in on the Back to the Fifties trend. Perhaps the former owner of my swing coat might have been passed on the street by 1980s vintage afficionados who thought “You should have bought a real 1950s swing coat. They are cheaper and better made!”

This raises the question of how did I know the coat was from the 1980s and not the 1950s? It was just an intuition when I picked up the coat – something about the fabric and the shoulder pads, that Hayley, the shop owner of Lula Vintage, confirmed. Chronically Vintage has a great blog post on how to tell genuine 1940s and 1950s clothing from the Eighties-does-Fifties reproductions. The surged seams on my coat, and the fact that it’s a size Small, for example, are dead give-aways.  Nonetheless – now that my swing coat has 30 years under its lapels – it’s “authentically” vintage and I love it, even if I don’t have the tulle petticoat as skirt to wear it for its full 80s effect.

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Does this look too costume-y?

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I’ve had my moments of vintage clothing buying when I want everything from the era for a certain look – the right 60s skirt, top, and then even hat, gloves and purse. But anyone who reads vintage styling tips knows, if you wear them all together, you run the risk of looking like you’re wearing a costume, rather than being stylish in the here and now. I can get away with a vintage skirt, and definitely a vintage purse, but a hat too? Definitely looking like I’m going to a theme party.

That’s why I love Halloween. Other than having a Mod 60s Party to attend, it’s the one night of the year I can put together the whole look – hat, gloves, top, bottom, and purse – and get away with it. And it’s great fun to be out in public, wearing a 60s pillbox! People who find the look odd think I’m in costume, and those who like vintage dig seeing the whole look together.

So vintage lovers, I hope you’ve taken advantage of Halloween as a chance to push the style boundaries a little and wear that entire Mad Men look tonight. Happy Halloween!

Is that a Halloween costume or how she normally dresses?

Is that a Halloween costume or how she normally dresses?

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Jumble Dressing, Pastiche and Androgyny

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

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Google Images of Androgynous Dressing 2015

A couple of days ago I was looking through photos from the late 1980s. When I first started to wear vintage, androgyny was cool. I would wear men’s trench coats or suit jackets and over-sized shirts over a pair of leggings or a black pencil skirt, a necktie in my hair as a headband. I felt both whimsical and confident in androgynous vintage looks like these.

What comes around goes around, as far as gender-bending looks go. Seeing the 80s photos reminded me of a recent New York Times article “Women Who Cover Up (Even as the Temperatures Climb).” Fashion & Style reporter Amy Sohn interviews young New Yorkers who “choose not to dress for a man’s gaze”. The article features a slide show of the 20ish set dressed in black, tights, loose-fitting shirts and coats, maxi skirts and dresses, wide-legged trousers. Said one New Yorker, “Sometimes I feel like dressing up like a boy, pretty androgynous, and sometimes I feel like dressing like a girl,…I don’t follow one particular trend or subculture. I just kind of jumble it all together.”

This “jumble style” was also how vintage style was initially interpreted in the 1980s. 1980s vintage was influenced by Punk subculture – ripped tulle skirts, topped with a black jacket, and torn men’s long underwear, dyed black (the original leggings). Similar to the sartorial savvy person in the New York Times article Angela McRobbie described late 80s vintage style as “pure pastiche,” that “plays with norms, conventions and expectations of femininity, post-feminism.” McRobbie also discussed 1980s androgynous style as “never unambiguously butch or aggressive, it was slim, slight and invariably ‘arty.’” When I look at 80s images of androgynous style (featuring pop culture icons like Grace Jones, Boy George or even Annie Lennox) I see parallels to the androgynous dress featured in Times. Both time periods feature colorful hair, loose-fitting coats, black stockings, bow ties and vintage items. Compare for yourself in the photos above (from Google images).

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Vintage, the First 40 Years

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I’m back! Where have I been? It turns out I have been reading about one thousand magazine and newspaper articles published since 1950 on secondhand and vintage clothing. I wanted to uncover the history of the vintage fashion trend, and find out how wearing secondhand clothing shifted from being viewed as rather pitiful to vintage chic in the United States.

It was an interesting journey. I learned that (at least in the United States press) the word “vintage” was first applied to clothing in 1957 when the Chicago Tribune referred to new clothing that recollected 1930s looks as “vintage.” Then the meaning of “vintage clothing” was that the 30s-looking clothing, like well-aged wine, reflected good years for style. Ten years later, the New York Times reports that a 1966 London trend of wearing old clothing as street style has crossed the pond. This category of fashionable old clothing came to be called “vintage clothing.” I also learned that fashion magazines considerably trailed the newspaper press in announcing the vintage clothing trend. While New York clothing dealers worried that there was going to be a shortage of vintage clothing because the market was so hot through the 1970s – even department stores were selling it – it wasn’t until 1979 that Vogue magazine rather dismissively announced a “boom in vintage clothes.” Not surprisingly perhaps, I discovered that 1970s vintage consumers were looking for the same qualities in vintage that we love today – unique, high quality clothing that is sourced in a more eco-conscious way than newly made clothing.

If you’re interested in finding out how vintage clothing was talked about as it emerged as a trend, you can read my article, “Vintage, the First 40 Years: The Emergence and Persistence of Vintage Style in the United States” in the journal Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research. The article is part of a special issue on Circulating Stuff through Second-hand, Vintage and Retro Markets. I’d like to thank the editors Staffan Appelgren and Anna Bohlin for putting together a great issue!

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Is it Vintage, Retro or Secondhand? Identify that Retrorama Dress!

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Last weekend I attended one of my favorite vintage events in the Twin Cities: Retrorama at the Minnesota History Center. It’s the one night of the year when I blend into a crowd, wearing a vintage 1960s black lace cocktail dress and my ice-blue cat-eye glasses!

Retrorama has me thinking about some questions that I am frequently asked: What makes a garment “vintage”? Does “vintage” differ from other types of secondhand / used clothing? And does “retro” mean the same thing as “vintage”? I’ll use some photos from Retrorama to answer those questions.

What does “vintage” refer to? My own general definition is that “vintage clothing” refers to garments that are at least 20 years old that have a recognizable look that communicates the style of an earlier decade. The key to this definition is that the garment is really 20+ years old rather than a newer reproduction of an older look. Thus, “vintage” as a concept is closely linked with authenticity. If you buy a vintage dress or necktie, it’s probably because you find it rewarding to wear the genuine article. These fabulous 1970s orange vinyl boots (from this year’s Retrorama) are authentically vintage:

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1970s Orange Vinyl Boots at Retrorama 2013

But that’s my definition. Hayley Bush, the owner of Saint Paul’s Lula Vintage informed me that, for the purposes of obtaining a business license, the City of Saint Paul defines “vintage” as clothing that is 25 years or older.

Why, you might ask, would a city bother to define vintage? I suspect the answer is to distinguish vintage clothing stores from ordinary secondhand and/or thrift stores, which have less cultural cache. It turns out cities regard secondhand clothing stores as a possible indicator of urban blight (and perhaps they associate vintage clothing stores with gentrification or urban revitalization). For example, the City of Minneapolis has an ordinance that regulates that pawn shops, homeless shelters and secondhand clothing stores must not be located close together. Is it fair to assume all secondhand stores will encourage a downward spiral of a neighborhood’s economy? Probably not. But I digress.

My digression brings me to the next question: What is secondhand? Secondhand clothing is the umbrella term for all used clothing, whether 20+ years old or younger. So “vintage” is a special type of secondhand clothing. So ordinary secondhand is the dress from H & M that you found at Buffalo Exchange. It’s also most of the apparel that populates thrift stores and, on the more upscale end of the continuum, the clothing at consignment stores.

This leads me to another digression – a pet peeve. The word “vintage” sounds more exotic than “secondhand,” so some stores and media photo shoots call a garment vintage when it’s really a recently-used garment. I will look at the shirt and think, “I saw this in the stores a few years ago – this is not from an earlier decade and it’s not vintage!” No wonder I am frequently asked what “vintage” means – the label increasingly is employed to describe all used clothes. Anyway, here’s an example of a cute secondhand dress from Vita’mn’s photos from Retrorama:

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Secondhand Dress, Retrorama 2013 (from Vita’mn)

Finally, what does “retro” mean? Now that’s more slippery. Merriam-Webster’s on-line definition illustrates the slipperiness: “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned.” See? Retro can refer to something that “relates” or “revives” or actually is a fashion from the past. With this definition, vintage and retro can be the same thing. And in Europe, I’ve noticed, “retro” is usually the favored term over “vintage.”

However, I prefer Wikipedia’s definition of “retro”: “Imitative of a style, fashion, or design from the recent past.” The key word here is “imitative,” thus suggesting that “retro” is “repro” – it’s a reproduction of a past fashionable look. I prefer this definition because it keeps “vintage” and “retro” distinct.

Why am I so fussy about “retro” versus “vintage”? It’s the authenticity issue – vintage is a genuine artifact from the past. For example, when I pick up a vintage dress, I can tell something about what colors were once in vogue. I can tell how clothes were made to have a different fit reflecting earlier ideas of what a body should be doing (for example, armholes were higher, encouraging straighter posture for the wearer). That’s why I think it’s important to know what is vintage versus what is a reproduction.

Don’t get me wrong – I love retro clothes. The advantage of retro over vintage is it’s easier to find your size, and the fit reflects today’s expectations of what a body does and thus gives the wearer more ease of movement. It’s fun to go into a retro store and see older styles in so many colors and sizes. So not surprisingly, at “Retro”rama, there are fine examples of retro:

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Bettie Page “retro” look, Retrorama 2013 (from Vita’mn)

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Bettie Page “retro” look, Retrorama 2013 (from Vita’mn)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, I’ll admit, the real-deal vintage gives me a thrill. Here was my favorite vintage look from this year’s Retrorama – dig the matching lace pants to that empire-waist tunic!

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1970s Lace Tunic and Matching Pants, Retrorama 2013

Want to see more Retrorama fashion? Here’s a link to the Retrorama Runway photo stream. Enjoy!

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Tues Jan 8: The History of Hip at the Turf Club

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Hey Twin Citians!

Want to learn more about the history of vintage clothing? What it’s like to run a vintage clothing store? As part of the Minnesota History Society’s History of Hip series, I will team up with Hayley Bush, owner of Lula Vintage in Saint Paul to talk about how and why wearing vintage clothing became a trend, the ins and outs of running a vintage clothing store, and the future of vintage. Come join us, get a beer, and let’s talk about vintage!

We will be at the Turf Club on Tuesday, January 8th at 7:30pm in the Clown Lounge. Tickets are $5 (free if you’re an MHS member!) and can be purchased at this link or by calling the Minnesota Historical Society at (651) 259-3015.

Happy New Year!

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Ironically Engaged with the Times: Hipsters and Living With Irony

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I feel a little bad for Christy Wampole. She’s the assistant professor of French Studies at Princeton who published the op-ed piece, “How to Live Without Irony” in the New York Times last Sunday. In my mind, I see her finishing the essay, polishing the language, getting it to a place of feeling good about it. I can imagine the excitement, anticipating that it would be published in the Opinionator section of the Times. Perhaps she wondered how many people would read it.

Once published, it was one of the most e-mailed and commented-upon articles of the week – and not necessarily in a good way. Though most of the commentary has been quite civil and thoughtful, the flaws in the argument were easy to spot: the lack of precision in locating irony within Western history; the assumption that hipsters can be stereotyped as apathetic, insincere, superficial individuals by virtue of how they dress and the objects with which they surround themselves; failure to acknowledge how irony is desirable in many social and political situations; and on and on. Perhaps it’s true that any publicity is good publicity, and this is a career-maker for a professor who just began her career at Princeton. But still, I feel a little bad.

So I’d like to start by making connections between Wampole’s argument and that of others who have made similar linkages between retro (looking backward in the realm of aesthetics and material culture), irony and social distance.

As someone who is interested in our culture’s engagement with retro style, it was this paragraph from “How to Live Without Irony” that particularly stood out to me:

The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.

Christy Wampole is not the first to observe that “nostalgic” dressing is ironic and find the practice problematic.   In my research on when vintage dressing moved from fringe to mainstream in American culture, I have encountered similar expressions of irritation with young people who” appropriate outmoded fashions” for the sake of expressing individuality.

When vintage dressing first began to move from being a strictly subcultural style into the sartorial mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s, writers like Tom Wolfe, Angela Carter and Kennedy Fraser lobbed very similar critiques. Wolfe and Carter saw the middle-class thrift-shopping youth (hippies, in this case) as making a mockery of working-class youth who had to shop the thrift stores (see Angela McRobbie’s excellent essay “Second-hand Dresses and the Ragmarket”). And similar to Christy Wampole’s view, Kennedy Fraser, a former writer for Vogue and The New Yorker, in the 1980 essay “Retro: a Reprise” expressed the view that retro dressing is a failure on the part of young people to engage with their own time and express themselves authentically. In her words:

Clothes came to be worn and seen as an assemblage of thought-out paradoxes, as irony, whimsy or deliberate disguise.  Thrift shop dressing carried it all to its ultimate.  We took to clothes for which we had spent little money, which didn’t necessarily fit us, and which had belonged in the past in some dead stranger’s life. Behind the bravado of what came to be known as “style,” there may have lurked a fear of being part of our time, of being locked into our own personalities, and of revealing too much about our own lives. (Fraser 1981:238).

Elizabeth McGuffey, author of Retro: the Culture of Revival, is a more recent author who, like Wampole, makes a connection between irony, Western culture’s recent adoration of things past, and social distance.

Retro’s highly self-conscious mix of derision and nostalgia provided a seductive ether, suggesting that history was something to be plundered rather than taken seriously….But it also posited a great divide, marking a cleaving away from the recent past; rather than forming continuity, retro’s nostalgic mockery fueled cultural narcissism. Retro’s translation of recent history into consumable objects suggests how previous periods of popular culture and design can be used to characterize ourselves as distinct from the recent past. p. 159.

One insight I took from reading McGuffey’s book is that when we, as a culture, appropriate looks and objects from the past, it is not an act of sentimental nostalgia of earnestly remembering times past. Instead, it is an ironic act that distances us as a culture from recent decades past (and indeed, even thinking of style as bounded by specific decades is a relatively recent trend). Retro style decontextualizes looks and objects of past material culture, separating them from the aesthetic whole that once defined the era. It does involve distance in some way – either one takes past styles and combines them with current looks that decontextualize them (and thus presents an ironic appearance), or if one completely embraces, say, the 1950s secretary look, then the distance is from one’s own time period.

So, Wampole is not wrong to connect irony, retro dressing and social distance, but it is the level of analysis that is key. McGuffey’s book addresses these connections at the level of culture, not the individuals who consume what culture is available to them. For example, she explains the role that members of the artworld (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) played in making aesthetic styles from the past (Art Nouveau, Art Deco) popular and the role that culture industries (like advertising firms) played in using anachronistic styles to sell products.

This leads me to ask a question: Is wearing clothes and surrounding oneself with objects from the past really a failure to engage with our own age?

I would argue that hipsters – whether or not they are doing it out of irony – are in fact engaging with the present precisely through culling looks and objects of the recent past.

Simon Reynolds, in Retromania  makes a compelling case that one of the biggest changes in popular culture over the last 30 years is that the digital age has made the mediated past ever-present – we have easy access to old record albums, books, movies, past tv shows, and even old ads. In fact, Reynolds points out that music industry catalogs for past pop music occupies more market space than new music – it has to; there is more past than present music to sell.

So when so-called hipsters go to a secondhand record shop to buy vinyl or when they make a score at the thrift store, or they think Steve McQueen is cool from streaming his films on Netflix, they are not (just) engaging with the past. They are engaging with their present. This is a present that makes the recent past immediately available to them to mine for “new” looks and sounds, and combines them in different, decontextualized ways.

I can pose a counter question —  Is buying new clothing and objects a way to be “authentically” engaged with our own age?  Should hipster-ish youth stick to buying clothes at The Gap or American Apparel? Or perhaps L.L. Bean would be more sincere. Should they throw out their “nostalgic” owl pendants and fedoras to languish in closets and drawers or the landfill?

This suggests another way that so-called hipsters are in fact engaged in their own age. Not only is the past their present, but their present is one in which they were brought up with the habit of recycling and creative re-use, of thinking about pollution, of being concerned about the planet. And the pastiche hipster style that mixes past and present does in some minor way, address these concerns.

In conclusion, I believe Wampole correctly recognized a connection between retro style, irony and social distance, but it was a mistake to individualize the tendency and assume that those who sport hipster-ish decontextualized style are disconnected from their own feelings, or the concerns of their own time. Without systematically studying stereotyped hipsters (if they are indeed identifiable as a distinct group), there is, at the most, only anecdotal evidence to believe that there is a correlation between hipster style and apathy. And anecdotally, counter-examples are also easy to find. I have had quite a number of  hipster-ish students who have also been among the most politically engaged on our campus, who have been significant advocates of broader gender and sexual expression, and who later seek careers in social justice and social welfare.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

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