Chic Theory

by Joanne Finkelstein

© all rights reserved

Responses to this article have been received from Ruth Barcan and Jennifer Craik.

In the African Congo, in the 1970s and ’80s, anthropologist Jonathan Friedman (1992) recounts a story of fashion obsession. In this politically unstable, economically depressed region there developed a cult around European luxury goods and, in particular, haute couture. At the time, the capital of the Congo, Brazzaville, was a French colonial outpost, where there were a few remaining Europeanised food stores merchandising the exotic tastes of haute cuisine – cheeses, wines, olives, pate, to the dwindling members of Francophile government officials. Foodstuffs were not the only foreign products available. European clothes, particularly those of haute couturiers , Yves Saint Laurent, Versace, Uomo, were also in demand, but they were not being merchandised through stores. They were the currency of a subculture of young, mostly unemployed men known as sapeurs , who valued elegant dress above all else.

The traffic in fashion took place in the ‘clubs des jeunes premiers’, where these fashion habitues, young men educated through the state school system into believing in the promises of French modernity, developed a common desire to consume the luxuries of European civilisation. The social and economic differences between Brazzaville and Paris, between an agrarian-based, exhausted colonial economy and a highly industrialised, globalised G7 member were not important to the sapeurs . The irreconcilability of a desire for French luxuries with the dismal economic future of the sapeur suggests such a degree of irrationality that the practice seemed almost magical, not unlike a cargo cult 1 . Yet, this imbalance between desire and realisation, between valuing a particular object and having the capacity to possess and maintain it, is a fundamental dynamic of fashion, and not just a feature of the unique sapeur lifestyle.

Despite being poor, mainly from the lower class, and chronically unemployed, the young Congolese devoted themselves to dressing well, in the labels of Parisian haute couturiersbecause these were the symbols of refinement. In this material desert, clothes had become a currency of identity. Although the sapeur was black, unemployed, and a discarded colonial relic, he was existentially equal to his European master if he dressed in the same style, pursued the same desires and shared the same sensibilities. Wearing haute couture was not a disguise which allowed the sapeur to enter the mainstream and pretend to be what he was not. The desire for fashionable attire was not just a means of gaining the admiration and recognition of the other. For the Congolese sapeur , clothing was the essence of identity.

In the lives of these young, unemployed men, a pilgrimage to Paris, to the source of all things civilised and luxurious, was a necessity. And the final achievement was the status ofparisien or elder. One who had been there and lived the life. Throughout the long apprenticeship, a sapeur may return to Brazzaville in order to demonstrate just how far he had come in the accumulation of ‘la gamme’. Such visits were referred to as descentes , a term suggestive of the colonial history of Brazzaville as well as the life opportunities it did not afford. During these visits, the sapeur would display his prizes, the clothes and labels (griffes) of the internationally recognised fashion houses. After these demonstrations of his identity, the struggle to return to Paris would begin again.

Friedman’s account is not only interesting as an instance of the mystery of cargo in the context of postcolonial studies, and as an anthropology of the world of goods in which humanness is inextricably entwined with materiality, but it is also a reading of fashion that resonates with contemporary theorising of that enduring phenomenon.

The Look

The novelist Alison Lurie, who wrote the popular non-fiction The Language of Clothes , has few doubts that we all employ tell-tale details in our dress to allude to other interior qualities. She writes, ‘the woman in the sensible grey wool suit and the frilly pink blouse is a serious, hard-working mouse with a frivolous and feminine soul’ 2 . Lurie has no trouble with the idea that when we encounter one another in the anonymous sphere of the public domain, our clothes become garrulous and disclose desires, beliefs, even secrets. It makes sense to her to use appearances to mark culture, gender, class, religion, sexual proclivities. Accordingly, in any crowd such as that at an airport, American tourists would be immediately recognisable by their swaddling clothes worn to meet the demands of travel which seems to infantilise them. Australians would be obvious because of their beach culture casualness, and Britons by their sandals worn with socks and the colonial echoes of their inappropriate hats and carryalls. Muslims, Jews, Hare Krishnas, Catholics, New Agers, all make themselves visible with obvious religious insignias. The seemingly anonymous stranger is easily categorised and ranked by the most cursory of glances.

To map personal identity and values onto physical appearances in Lurie’s somewhat unmediated manner seems simplistic, yet it is a widespread cultural practice. Physiognomists from Aristotle to the twentieth century have argued along similar lines that character is immanent in appearance, that the physical is highly legible as a form of embodied subjectivity3 . The association between appearance and character remains so common, for instance, in our stereotyping of race and gender, that its ubiquity naturalises it. The appearances of public figures such as politicians, pop singers and movie stars are effectively used to characterise them. The evolution of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and David Bowie was a declension of character; the various incarnations of kd lang and Madonna advertise how easily self-reinvention is accomplished. Once, before a Federal election, the yet-to-be Prime Minister John Howard was urged by his campaign spin doctors to have his pointed teeth filed evenly to change his image; Bob Hawke was effectively repigeon-holed from a bird of prey to a preening narcissist by a heightened focus on his cockatoo crest of hair. Menzies’ eyebrows, Paul Keating’s brown eyes have all been used to signify character. Various industries merchandise a ‘look’ and sell their products accordingly. John Molloy’s best-selling instruction manuals on dressing for success sold a new look femininity 4 ; women’s magazines and the mainstream cinema as well as the publicised habits of the cross-dresser all provide prescriptive images of the feminine and masculine ideal 5 . These prescriptive ‘looks’ contribute both positively and negatively to the widespread ideological belief that images and appearances are both revealing and accurate. The position is not new; Lord Chesterfield, in the eighteenth century, famously instructed his son to understand that while stylish dress may seem foolish and an expensive vanity, it was more foolish to dress unfashionably because in one’s adherence to the proper codes of appearance, more important declarations of social acceptability were being conveyed 6 .

Drag and Fake

Yet despite the wide circulation of these ideas, all fashions are ambivalent because the question of whether they are meant to be confrontational or affirmational is indeterminate. When the haute couture gown is paraded in drag, its original value is hard to discern. This is the point made by Diane Arbus’s photography, and by Jennie Livingston in her documentary film, Paris Is Burning , which records the drag balls attended by African-American and Latino men in New York City and Harlem at which fashion styles selected mainly from the straight ‘white’ world such as the military, executive, high drag feminine and Ivy League look are performed and judged. Judith Butler enquires after the meaning of these performances: do they subvert the norm or re-idealise it, and how does an onlooker know when the appearance coincides with what it means? 7 The same problems exist when any style is imitated; how do we know, for instance, whether faux-fashion is effective as parody or simply fails to speak? Andrew Ross rightly asks, does faux-fashion undercut or concretise the fashion hierarchy 8 ?

When casual street-wear was first smothered in logos it could be read as mockery of the fashion label but as the inscriptions and insignia on such items of clothing became more prominent, the iconoclasm lost its impact. Parading the label (as the Brazzaville sapeur does) no longer exposes the middle-class fetish of buying symbolic power; it merely announces a new consumer aesthetic. This is currently illustrated with the popular peaked sports cap. Was it ever used only to indicate support for a particular sports team? Has its recent appropriation by non-American ethnic groups, professional tennis players, weekend rollerbladers, children, subverted its meaning? Is its meaning anything more than globalised Americanicity? The sports cap has always been prominent in rural America, but in the city, and especially when worn back to front, it has recently been read as a sign of social crisis.

Yet as soon as the reversed cap assumed this meaning, it became part of middle-class fashion paraphernalia, just as the adoption of fake fur has done subsequently. The fashion moloch has absorbed yet another attempt at oppositional dress. Much the same can be said of hair-styles. The shaved head may allude to a military-style puritanism, and parody of the institutionalised look, or gesture ambivalently toward the victims of war. Body-piercing and tattooing can be seen to recuperate the practices of ‘primitive’ peoples, but they also evoke a technoculture in which semi-criminalised individuals are identified by numbers and body-brandings. From these examples, it is apparent that reading appearances to identify human character remains a dangerous, popular, and cross-cultural practice. This makes the innocent hobby of ‘people watching’, so often cited as a sign of a rich inner life, a tacit admission of failure because it is highly likely to demonstrate an inability to read the signs of the times except in cliched and stereotyped terms.

The Power of Fashion

Fashion is an underestimated social force. It functions effectively not only as an economic colossus but also to engineer social practices. This interplay of consumer tastes, social habits and personal identity was noted by Thorstein Veblen in his nineteenth-century analysis of the new American bourgeoisie and leisure classes. Veblen’s position was that the upper classes invented fashion to distinguish themselves from those below. When the styles and practices of the upper classes were imitated, when their fashions ‘trickled down’ to their social inferiors, the upper classes were impelled to reconstitute themselves 9 .

The trickle down theory of fashion has been rewritten by twentieth-century street and diffusion fashions which do not follow the rules of gravity, but which still function in the same way to designate the identity of the wearers. The invention of the fashion label or brand name has given the consumer a sense of social location which promises to neutralise the oceanic disorientation of a limitless horizon of commodities. This sense of location is made to seem part of the allure of fashionability and part of the unexplicated stabilising of identity which accompanies signature goods such as McDonald’s, BMW, Sony.

Goods interpellate us, addressing the notional Marlboro Man, loyal coke drinker, Nike devotee, and dedicated Donna Karan fan. Without the fashion label or brand product, there seem to be few pathways through the crowded field of commodities, but with the label, fashion functions as a how-to-guide to a rich, material life. The brand invests the everyday practices of the contemporary fashion lover with the specificities of taste, social location, and subjectivity. Fashion, in this way, appears to resolve the performative problem of living amongst strangers by providing the precise gestures, roles and scripts which Erving Goffman argued we needed in order to go on each day 10 .

This capacity of fashion to provide a performance script for the transactions of the everyday also draws upon a physiognomic history of interpreting the body surface. It is here that the logics of fashion collide with cartesian precepts of a stable interiorised identity. Fashion brings emphasis to the obvious, the material, the exterior. A physiognomic reading makes physical features and appearances seem revelatory of the secrets of personal identity. Such a view of the body has had a long Western history of confident useage. And with some justification. As a methodology, reading the surface as indicative of other, less obvious knowledges is not always a misleading exercise. The lessons of literary deconstruction and abstract expressionist art have taught us this. Nonetheless when applied to the human body, reading the visible as if the precepts of physiognomy were a text produces the problems of objectivisation, that is, of regarding the object as if its meaning were self-evident and obdurate. This is hard to claim with humans.

David Bowie and Madonna A La Mode

Historically, the linkage of character and morality with physical appearance was significantly strengthened when modern societies eliminated rigid codes of dress and sumptuary laws (which regulated the legitimate ownership of goods) and created opportunities for individuals to construct or fashion themselves as they pleased. Such flexibility of self-representation, which has been a driving force in the rapid development of the fashion industries, is also an acclaimed defining feature of modernity in the West 11 . The linkages between fashionability and modernity are forged from the shared evaluation of innovation and the pursuit of novelty in technical, political, social and aesthetic arenas. By emphasising the seductiveness of the new and deriding the past, fashion becomes synonymous with the modern. As Douglas Kellner states:

… fashion is a constituent feature of modernity, interpreted as an era of history marked by perpetual innovation, by the destruction of the old and the creation of the new. Fashion itself is predicated on producing ever new tastes, artifacts, and practices. Fashion perpetuates a restless, modern personality, always seeking what is new and admired, while avoiding what is old and passé. Fashion and modernity go hand in hand to produce modern personalities.

This association, not confined to the material and technical world, also includes the cartesian formulation of identity. Kellner refers to the cult of celebrity using figures such as Michael Jackson, Prince, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Pee Wee Herman and Madonna to indicate how personal identity has been commodified. These public figures do much to change the social conventions around gender classification and to legitimate a polymorphic sexuality. In so doing, they demonstarte the permeability of identity and question the stable boundaries of the cartesian self.

Madonna’s constant change of fashion, image, and identity promoted experimentation and the creation of one’s own style and identity. Her sometimes dramatic shifts in identity suggested that identity was a construct, that it was something that one produced and could be modifiedat will. The way Madonna deployed fashion in the construction of her identity made it clear that one’s appearance and image helps produce what one is, or at least how one is perceived… Madonna’s hair changed from dirty blonde to platinum blonde, to black, brunette, redhead, and multifarious variations thereof. Her body changed from soft and sensuous to glamorous and svelte to hard and muscular sex machine to futuristic technobody. Her clothes and fashion changed from flashy trash to haute couture to far-out technoculture to lesbian S & M fashion to postmodern pastiche of all and every fashion style 12 .

To regard identity as a commodity capable of being constantly renovated is to critique the modernist assumptions of the self, which in turn, precipitates a deeper scrutinising of key cultural constructs such as humanness and materialism. If identity is a commodity to be fashioned into a ‘look’ or equated with a ‘cool’ lifestyle, what happens to those interior and conventionally more prized metaphysical qualities such as character and morality? With these questions Thorstein Veblen’s too easy linkages between consumer practices, social habits and personal identity become points of critical enquiry. Fuss points out that ‘the question of what it means to be human has never before been more difficult – and more contested’ 13 . The recent theoretical recession of humanism forms the context for her question ‘what has become of the human?’, which incidentally has been an enduring focus of the social sciences and resonates through a great deal by anthropological ethnography.

Anthropologists, like Friedman studying the Congolese sapeurs , have long understood that goods are always culturally coded for communication, yet their capacity to carry subtle metaphoric inflections makes them difficult to decode. Ironically, they are at once transparent and opaque. Anthropologists have employed material goods to excavate a society’s practices; culturally contextualising goods gives some assurance of their meaning 14 . Thus, following anthropology, analyses of modernity have frequently examined material goods and the physical appearances of individuals as illuminating encodings of the culture.

The Origins of Cool

In the early years of the twentieth century, Georg Simmel argued that the rapid growth of city centres changed the way people related to one another. He described the city as a noisy, highly stimulating background against which people attempted to transact their business and maintain a private life. 15 The intrusive urban background influenced the individual’s sense of identity and singularity, as well as the modes of conduct, the postures and demeanour regarded as appropriate in the public arena. Urban fashion provides a means of acquiring multiple lives. It works best in a social climate saturated with commodities, each of which is infused with promises of new sensations and new opportunities. The transformative properties of fashion, then, are an expectation of every new purchase 16 .

The city changed the way people related by affecting how they saw themselves – according to Simmel, as diminutive and undistinguished, and how they saw others – as potentially affronting and the source of unanticipated demands. In response to the pressures of metropolitan life, Simmel argued, individuals assumed a blasé attitude, that is, a sense of social detachment, a coolness, which provided a buffer between themselves and the rush of the everyday. But this was not entirely satisfactory, and to ameliorate the loss of identity and sense of submergence which the city engendered, individuals exaggerated their singularity through the use of fashionable status symbols.

The World according to Vivienne Westwood

In the urban West, Simmel interpreted appearances and specifically fashion as a means of protecting individuals from a sense of being ground-down, levelled out and overwhelmed by the overarching socio-technological mechanism that is the metropolis. The British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood also interprets fashion this way. In her public pronouncements on the fashion industry and its social significance, she has declared fashion to be dead and that in its stead there is couture creation . By this, she means that the regimentation provided by conventional fashions (such as gender and class proscriptiveness) no longer appeal because the desire for a stable interiorised sense of identity has ruptured. In order to survive the city now, Westwood’s position suggests that people struggle toward extreme subjectivism, performing and asserting themselves to recuperate a sense of individuality in an environment marked by indifference. Styling appearances into idiosyncratic statements of character and individuality (that is, couture creation ) is a way of repudiating the urban anonymity.

Historically, there are instances of using appearance as billboards for identity politics. Declarations of serious social unrest have been invested in stylised appearances. Various utopian rebels and social reformers have used costume and dress styles as public announcements of their alternative outlooks 17 , and counter-cultural dress has long been a device for publicising social malaise and political critique. This is in much the same way that conventional dress codes signify an acceptance of the status quo.

However, the original problem of interpreting fashion as confrontational or affirmational remains; the interpretation of any fashion style, counter-cultural or otherwise, is equally limited because the visual nature of appearances cannot be confined to specific messages. Radical politics are more varied and subtle than any T-shirt display can acknowledge. And Vivienne Westwood’s iconoclasm has been hijacked and mainstreamed into a British export industry.

Street Cred and Catwalk Chic

Given the scepticism provoked by interpretations of fashion and style such as offered by Alison Lurie, it is ironic that a desire to read the obvious as if it were self-revealing still endures. This is exemplified in the persistent use of fashion hierarchies to reflect class, status and conventionality, even when the mutual cannibalisation of fashions from every position on the political spectrum continues as part of the sartorial cycle. For instance, when street-stylists have lost the ability to shock, and the most audacious styles have become elements in mainstream costuming (such as the absorption of S/M fetish wear into haute couture , and the prevalence of cross-dressing on international fashion house catwalks), a belief still endures in the authenticity of appearances, and in the ability of the costumed body to speak and act as both a manifesto of rebellion and a mirror to convention.

The basic irony of fashion is that it cannot succeed in marking the individual as truly different. While fashions may be touted as a means to be distinguished, the pursuit of fashion is more effectively a means of being socially homogenised. The historic success of being fashionable has been to provide a sense of individualism within a shared code, since individuals can look acceptably distinctive only within a restricted aesthetic. When they purchase fashionable goods that will distinguish them, they do so only from a range of goods already understood to be valuable.

To be fashionable involves having specific knowledge about the value of goods. It is not sufficient to desire goods because of their utility. Fashion goods have more symbolic and cultural value than use-value. Hence, when individuals, in a self-conscious manner, use specific dress styles – pants for men, skirts for women – they are making claims on social conventions. Even with the ubiquitous T-shirt smothered in logos of the most banal nature such as ‘Just Do It’, ‘Get a Life’, or ‘The Hard Rock Cafe’, claims to social recognition are being made. Although it is always possible (but never unequivocally so) that these familiar surfaces are bracketed for purposes of irony and satire, and that the uniform is also a platform for enunciating messages which invite aesthetic challenge and social scrutiny, still the opaqueness of the wearer’s intentions robs the performance of much of its subversive thrust.

The Meaning of Fashion

The emphasis that city life gives to appearances concentrates attention on the fashionable. This makes fashion a disciplinary power in Foucault’s sense, in that it coerces the body to shape and rearrange itself in accordance with ever-shifting social expectations. The skills required to do this including the ability to diet, apply facial cosmetics, arrange clothes, and wear ornamentation, are in the service of aesthetic innovations that continually reinvent subjectivity. Foucault’s notion of the docile body shows how elements of a fashionable lifestyle – which include the urban habits of reading fashion magazines, engaging in body-sculpting practices such as dieting, gym work-outs, cosmetic surgery and periodic internments at health and fat farms – are techniques for transforming the body into a commodity 18 . The body becomes a site of aesthetic innovation, much like the family car, and subject to periodic upgrading. To redesign the look of a commodity is to give it a new lease of life, specifically by submerging its use-value into its appearance-value. ‘Looking good’ adds value: those who cannot achieve the fashionable ‘look’ fail the appearance test, and their social status declines. Urban life, which constantly exposes everybody to the scrutiny of strangers, emphasises the need to monitor and update one’s self-performance. This imperative to be self-conscious is a distinguishing feature of modernity, and is so naturalised that each of us plays multiple roles and has various styles of appearance on the understanding that the assertion of identity through appearance is a matter of constant urgency.

If personal identity is one of the problems of modernity, then it is equally true that the fashion industries are deeply implicated in the manufacture of ‘personality’. Fashion provides a short cut by which we enter another identity and join a subculture that insulates us from contamination by other styles. Dick Hebdige calls fashion goods ‘weapons of exclusion’ 19 . As the fashion industries segment the marketplace and localise certain social groups by their tastes and desires, it is simultaneously advertising identity as a commodity – as the youth fashion houses Stüssy and Benetton have done with their marketing invention – global tribe memberships.

It is too simple to explain the success of fashion by saying that human beings have a chronic need to belong, or by referring to clever marketing and consumer exploitation. Ted Polhemus, a media anthropologist and curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s fashion exhibition, Streetstyle, From Sidewalk to Catwalk, 1940 to Tomorrow , gives an account of fashion similar to that offered by Alison Lurie; fashion is an inherent feature of human sociality, it is a means of securing a social identity:

… the tribal imperative is and always will be a fundamental part of human nature. Like our most distant ancestors we feel alienated and purposeless when we do not experience this sense of belonging and comradeship. It is no coincidence that the decline of traditional social groupings, which has intensified so markedly since the Second World War precisely parallels the rise of a new type of social group, the styletribe. Hipsters, Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers and so forth arose to satisfy that need for a sense of community and common purpose which is so lacking in modern life 20 .

Such views on fashion are popular and amusing, but they also function to conceal the more critically interesting complexities of the phenomenon: how, for instance, fashion draws us into the cultural practice of reading the surface yet does not resolve the constant ambiguity of whether a look is affirmational or confrontational; how the fashion industries are the tip of an economic colossus that has global implications; and how the physiognomic assumptions embedded in the fashionable look conceal a quaint history of how appearances and identity have been mapped onto one another as if they were accurate mirror reflections. When these nuances of the fashion experience are spoken of with as much assurance as the excitement and amusement derived from each season’s look, then enslavement to chic will have become interesting.

Joanne Finkelstein teaches in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Centre for Cultural Studies at Monash University.
Her latest books are After A Fashion, Melbourne University Press, 1996, and Slaves of Chic: An A-Z of Consumer Pleasures, Minerva, 1996.

Responses to this article have been received from Ruth Barcan and Jennifer Craik.


1. Jonathan Friedman, ‘Narcissism, roots and postmodernity: the constitution of selfhood in the global crisis’, in S. Lash and J. Friedman (eds) Modernity and Identity (Oxford: Blackwell,1992).

2. Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes (London: Bloomsbury, 1992).

3. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); George Tytler, Physiognomy in the European Novel (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982); Judith Weschler, The Human Comedy , (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

4. John Molloy, Dress for Success (New York: Warner, 1975); John Molloy, The Woman’s Dress for Success Book (New York: Warner, 1977).

5. Rosetta Brookes, ‘Fashion Photography: The Double-Page Spread – Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Deborah Turbeville’ in Wilson and Ash (eds), Chic Thrills (1992); Rosalind Coward, Female Desires (London: Paladin, 1984); Jane Gaines, Costume and Narrative, in J. Gaines and C. Herzog (eds) Fabrications (London: Routlege, 1990); Marjorie Garber,Vested Interests (New York: Routledge, 1992).

6. Quentin Bell, On Human Finery (London: Hogarth, 1976/1947). Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss (eds), On Fashion (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

7. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993).

8. Andrew Ross, Tribalism in Effect, in Benstock and Ferriss (eds) On Fashion (1994).

9. Neil McKendrick et al., The Birth of a Consumer Society (London: Europa, 1982); Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Macmillan, 1899).

10. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959).

11. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989); Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air (London, Verso 1985).

12. Douglas Kellner, Madonna, Fashion, Identity, in Benstock and Ferriss (eds) On Fashion , (1994), P.161; 62-63

13. Diana Fuss (ed), Human, All Too Human (New York: Routledge, 1996).

14. Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods (Middlesex: Penguin, 1996/1978).

15. Georg Simmel, Adornment, in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950);

16. Linda DeLibero, This Year’s Girl, in Benstock and Ferriss (eds), On Fashion (1994).

17. Kate Luck, Trouble in Eden, Trouble with Eve, in Wilson and Ash (eds), Chic Thrills (1992); Aileen Ribeiro, Utopian Dress, in Wilson and Ash (eds) Chic Thrills (1992); Elizabeth Wilson and Juliet Ash (eds), Chic Thrills (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

18. Joanne Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self (Oxford: Polity, 1991).

19. Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light (London: Routledge, 1988).

20. Ted Polhemus, Streetstyle, From Sidewalk to Catwalk, 1940 to Tomorrow (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994).

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