Film Fashion Fridays: 11. Jeanette MacDonald’s Shirtwaist and Walking Skirt in “San Francisco” from 1936

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Today is Friday, and do you know what that means? For the first time in a couple of months, I am going to publish a Film Fashion Fridays article! Although I didn’t officially or purposely suspend this series during my themed months of #CleanMovieMonth85 in July and #AMonthWithoutTheCode65 in August, I got so busy with my many other articles that I wasn’t able to write any of my fashion features. Now, with the arrival of September, I am restarting this series. This week, I have a special incentive for writing a fashion feature.

This weekend, I am participating in the Costume Drama Blogathon, which is being hosted by Debbie Vega of Moon in Gemini. This blogathon is dedicated to films which were set in 1920 or before, thus making them period pieces, regardless of when they were actually made. I love period movies, so I immediately knew I wanted to participate when I heard about this blogathon. Technically, I have three entries in this blogathon. The first is an old article of mine about Gone With the Wind. Debbie is very graciously including this article, which was a very tardy entry in her Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon of 2018. I appreciate her featuring my lengthy examination of this classic Civil War drama in the current blogathon.

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Virginia O’Brien, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, and others in The Harvey Girls, 1946

The word costume in this blogathon’s title naturally made me think of my series about costumes, so I decided to make one of my blogathon entries a description of a historical costume in a period film. A random conversation which I had with a high school girl whom I acquainted made me decide to feature instructions for a Victorian outfit which is easy to recreate. Numerous Breen Era films were set in the Victorian or Edwardian Eras, so there are multiple costumes from which I could select an example. The trick was finding one which had enough pictures for referral.

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Judy Garland wears the classic Victorian ensemble in In the Good Old Summertime, 1949

In the Victorian Era, there were many fashions which were in vogue. Naturally, styles came and went during Queen Victoria’s over sixty-year reign. However, there is one style which, in some form or other, persisted in popularity throughout the Victorian Era and into the Edward Era. It is easy to assemble and alter slightly for variety, yet it has a very recognizable period look. This style is the shirtwaist and walking skirt combination. The shirtwaist is always white, the only possible alternative being cream or some other shade of off-white. A Victorian shirtwaist always had long sleeves and a high neckline. The skirt can be one of many colors. Black is the most standard, but it is seen in many other dark colors, such as blue, green, brown, gray, and burgundy. Dark shades are not the only options, since light hues like pink, lavender, lime, and tan can also be worn. The skirt was always ankle or floor-length and quite full. Outfits like this often featured a jacket of the same material as the skirt. However, when inside, the jacket was usually doffed, leaving the shirtwaist exposed. This style is simple in its basic construction, yet it can be varied in so many ways. Skirts could be taffeta, cotton, or wool, and blouses could have varying amounts of frill and filigree. There is a graceful elegance in this outfit, and it is very feminine and refined.

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John Brown, Clark Gable, and Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco, 1936

Today’s featured outfit is worn by Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco from 1936. This film is set in 1906 in the titular city, so the costume era is what is now called Edwardian in honor of King Edward VIII of England. The street clothes are hardly distinguishable from those of the Victorian Era, which ended only five years earlier. In the memorable scene in Blackie’s (Clark Gable) office when he shows Mary (Jeanette MacDonald) all his trophies and implies that he wants to add her to his collection, she wears an ensemble such as I have been describing. The shirtwaist is white and unadorned. It has long, straight sleeves with plain cuffs. The collar is standard turn-over without ruffles or frills. It is tied at the neck with a thin ribbon done in a bow. The shirtwaist is paired with a long skirt with two rows of buttons on it. Although the movie is in black and white, the skirt is obviously lighter than black. It could be gray, but it also could be green, light brown, or a shade of blue. It doesn’t really matter. You may interpret it as whichever color you like. Let’s examine this outfit, starting with the skirt.

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This skirt looks like it is wool or a heavy cotton. It is fastened at the waist by a matching belt. It is fairly straight until it flares at the bottom. It has two rows of buttons down either side of its front. As I said, this style was popular for many decades. The style of the shirtwaist is not very telling of the exact era. The feature which betrays the time period of an outfit is the skirt. In the 1860s, the Civil War Era, very wide, round skirts were popular, often accomplished with hoop skirts. After that, lots of petticoats were popular, giving a very full look. In the 1880s, bustles were popular, which is why that time was called the Bustle Era. By the early twentieth century, straighter skirts were in fashion, often with just one petticoat. This was a precursor to the hobble skirt, the 1910s and World War I style marked by a straight skirt which is bound at the ankles, causing the wearer to “hobble” when walking. Some of these styles are very specific and intricate to recreate. Others are more vague and thus fit many eras easily. Let me give you two examples of skirts from Amazon which could be worn in an outfit of this sort.

The above skirt from Amazon is a good standard skirt to be worn with any Victorian ensemble of this kind. The skirt is full but not too big. This is the most similar skirt to Mary’s which I could find. It has no belt and no buttons, but it has a similar straight yet full look. It is taffeta and fairly stiff with a slight sheen. It comes in black, red, and yellow. It has elastic at the back. At $37.99, it is a good value.

The above skirt from Amazon is my second option for this outfit. It is much fuller than the previous skirt. It is also a lot shinier. This is a good option if you want to use a bigger petticoat or a hoop skirt, which is especially appropriate if you are trying to achieve an earlier Victorian style. This skirt comes in black, blue, bud green, bud purple, burgundy, champagne, chocolate, claret, daffodil, dark green, dark navy, dark royal, deep green, fuchsia, gold, grape, green, grey, hunter, ice blue, ivory, kelly, lavender, light plum, lilac, mint, navy blue, ocean blue, orchid, pearl pink, pink, purple, red, regency, royal blue, silver, skin pink, sky blue, teal blue, watermelon, white, yellow, and custom for an additional cost. It is very shiny satin. It has a zipper closure in the back. It is a good value at $39.99.

         To achieve the proper period look, you need to wear some sort of petticoat under your skirt. The three above petticoats from Amazon are all good options. The one on the far left, has a bell-like shape which definitely flares at the bottom. The middle one is a more standard petticoat. It is fairly straight and more evenly fluffy all the way down. It will offer the straightest look of the three. The far right petticoat is very full. It is more like a crinoline. It is good if you want an earlier Victorian look. I wouldn’t recommend wearing it under the first skirt I recommended, since I think it is too big. However, it would look great under the second skirt. If you wore that full skirt with this crinoline, you would have an impressive Civil War look!

If you want a specific and very historically accurate look, you may need some additional underpinnings beneath your skirt for certain eras. The above image is a bustle pad, which is a nicely understated accessory for an 1880s outfit which will give an impressive touch of authenticity. If you click on the image, it will lead you to a page which features several authentic underpinnings such as bustles, paniers, petticoats, hoops, and crinolines. They are quite reasonable and look very historical. If you a trying to create a specific era, take a look at this page!

Jeanette MacDonald’s skirt features a matching belt, but neither of the skirts I recommended comes with one. A belt is a nice addition to an outfit like that, since it gives an extra accessory. Also, it can be very helpful to give definition to the waist if the skirt is a little large for you. I have trouble finding a skirt with a small enough waist for me, and the hourglass silhouette is the defining feature of Victorian feature. A belt can help you achieve this look. The above belt from Amazon is good because it is one of the few which you can find that is adjustable to any size, due to the fact that it is woven rather than solid and punched with holes. It comes in black, blue, light pink, silver, pink, white, red, and yellow, meaning that it would work with skirts of many colors. You can match the belt to your skirt, or you can choose a contrasting color which might match some other accessory rather than the skirt. At $3.95, it is a great value.


The two above belts from Amazon are good options for fashion accents. Rather than just a practical item to hold up your skirt, they are accessories which add a lot to the outfit as a whole. The bow belt would also be very pretty worn backwards so that the bow is in the back. That would look very seamless because the closure is two small hooks under the bow. The flower belt has a similar closure, which is a nice feature, but it has snaps instead of hooks. However, I don’t think it would look good worn backwards. The bow belt also comes in red, and the flower belt comes in pink, red, rose, and white, as well as black. Thus, they can be selected in accent colors. The bow belt is $10.99, and the flower belt is $12.98. The bow belt comes in small and large, but the flower belt is one size fits all.

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As I described before, Mary’s shirtwaist is quite plain. However, blouses used in this ensemble may have varying degrees of decoration. Some Victorian blouses featured a lot of lace and ruffles as well as puffy sleeves. You may enjoy ornamenting your ensemble with a fancier shirtwaist, depending on the occasion, the skirt you are wearing, and the era which you are trying to recreate. Let’s consider some possible shirtwaists for this outfit.

The above blouse from Amazon has similar sleeves to Mary’s. They are quite straight with lace on the cuffs. The shoulders are barely puffed. There are buttons up the blouses front. The collar is high-necked and trimmed with subtle lace that matches that on the sleeves. There are large ruffles on either side of the buttons of the front. The material is shiny. This shirtwaist is quite tailored and is described as slim fit, so it should fit snugly to nicely compliment your figure. However, you don’t want to get it too small. It costs $24.99.

The above shirtwaist from Amazon is one of the more elaborate ones on this list. Its sleeves are fuller, coming to puffs near the wrists. The cuffs are very long and tight with lace at the edges. There are buttons up the front on a lace-edged strip. The collar is high and lacy. The upper part of the shirtwaist is very ornate. It has an elaborate lacy “neckline” above a pleated insert, which is adorned with a removable bow. The material looks quite firm. This blouse costs $33.99.

The above shirtwaist from Amazon is the plainest option I could find. It has straight sleeves with simple, lace-less cuffs, just like Mary’s. The collar is unadorned, and it doesn’t go up onto the neck. There are buttons up the front of the blouse, lined on either side by ruffles. This blouse has simple material. It is a good option for this outfit if you are going for simplicity or if you want a plain background to adorn with accessories. It costs $26.99.

The above shirtwaist from Amazon is a compromise between the previous two. It is fancier than the last one but not as ornate as the one before that. It has straight sleeves with simple cuffs which are edged in lace. It has buttons up the front which sit on a strip which is edged with subtle lace. It has a false neckline with lace and a ruffle, but it is not as low or as elaborate as the other one’s. It has a high-necked collar with pleats at its edge. Its neckline is completed with a lace-edged bow which is removable. It costs $25.99.

Only two of the above shirtwaists come with a bow at the neck, both of which are removable. In both of these options, the bow is white. The others don’t have any sort of tie or bow at the neck. Since Mary’s shirtwaist has a contrasting bow, you may want to add a ribbon tie to your shirtwaist. The above thin scarf tie from Amazon is a great option. It has a silky material, and it is only one inch wide, so it would be easy to tie. In the description, it is recommend as a necktie, so it would work very well for this purpose. It comes in black, blue green, champagne grey, green blue, orange red, pink, wine, and yellow. It also comes in two sets of two, coral pink and black with black striped edges and white and gray with gray striped edged. You could match the tie with your skirt. Also, I think it would be lovely if you chose a contrasting color to the skirt and matched it with the belt. The scarf costs $8.99, which I consider a good value.

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Ilona Massey in Balalaika, 1939

Sometimes this style can be worn with very full sleeves, as in the above photograph. I don’t know how historically accurate Miss Massey’s costume is for the film’s setting, which is Russia right before the outbreak of World War I and the Russian Revolution. However, gloriously puffy sleeves were very popular in the early Victorian Era, particularly during and before the Civil War Era. In some cases, you may want to enhance your outfit with a full-sleeved blouse.

The above shirtwaist from Amazon is a lovely example of a blouse with big sleeves. Although not sheer like Miss Massey’s, these sleeves are flare in big ripples before coming to long, tight cuffs. The sleeves can be pushed up slightly to reveal part of the forearm if desired. There are no buttons on the blouse’s front. The collar is quite high but unadorned. It has a long tie at the collar which can be done at a bow either directly at the center, as in the above picture, or off to the side. The material has a lovely satin sheen. This item costs $31.16.

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In Victorian outfits such as these, we rarely have a good chance to see the wearer’s shoes, since showing any part of the leg higher than the foot was considered scandalous before the 1920s. However, in the above candid picture from the set of San Francisco, Jeanette MacDonald is raising her skirt higher than her decorous character ever would dare to do. Perhaps it is the remnants of her pre-Code image as the “Lingerie Diva” which makes her comfortable crossing her legs and lifting her skirt. Anyway, she is obliging enough to reveal her shoe in the process. It is a short white boot with buttons up its side and cute two and a half inch heel, to estimate. Let’s see what options for Victorian footwear we can find from Amazon.

The above shoe from Amazon is a white lacy ankle boot. It does not reach as high as Miss MacDonald’s boot, which goes up a good two inches on her ankle. This boot stops at the top of the foot. Rather than having the spat-like style of Mary’s boot, it has a solid satin lace pattern which covers its whole surface. Rather than have the classic side buttons which required the use of button hooks, it is fastened with lace ribbon. The heel is two and a half inches high. This shoe costs $56.94.

The above shoe from Amazon is a white mid-calf boot. While the previous option reaches only to the ankle, this boot is higher, like the one Jeanette MacDonald wears in the film. It is synthetic leather rather than fabric, and the design of the boot is almost identical to that of Mary’s, including the faux spat look. The only major difference is that it has laces up its front rather than buttons up its side. The heel is two and a half inches high. Conveniently, this shoe also comes in black and brown, which would be lovely with this ensemble. Black would look great with a black skirt, and brown would be a good option with several other colors. This item costs between $41.24 and $84.99, depending on which size and color you choose.

A Victorian outfit doesn’t look right if you wear it over modern undergarments. A petticoat and under underskirts are not the only essential underpinnings. One item which you must always have is a good chemise, which is the Victorian version of the full slip, the necessity of which in vintage fashion I described in my Foundations article. A good option for this undergarment is the above product from Amazon. Technically, it is described as a Victorian night gown. However, Victorian women often slept in garments which were similar to their most basic undergarment. Also, nightgowns are often called chemises. Thus, I recommend the above cotton garment as your chemise. It costs $24.99.

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Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, 1939

There is one garment which is absolutely essential if you want to have an accurate Victorian look, and that is the corset. Of course, I don’t mean that you can’t select an appropriate blouse, skirt, and petticoat and have a convincing outfit. If put together nicely, such an ensemble will look lovely and very historical. However, if you really want an authentic look, a corset is necessary. Unless you have personal experience with this undergarment, the very word probably fills you with images of actresses being laced into the restrictive garments and saying that they can’t breath. However, these are often inaccurate. I am unconvinced that the well-bred Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara would be so uncomfortable in a corset. She obviously is a spoiled girl who just likes to complain. At that time, girls were carefully waist-trained to achieve perfect figures. Although she is complaining when she prepares for the barbecue early in the film, remember that, after childbirth, she longs for the perfect 17.5 inch waist which she achieved with the corset.

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Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer in Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944

MGM gives us another inaccurate depiction of corset-wearing in Meet Me in St. Louis. Rose laces younger sister Esther into a corset for the big Christmas Eve party while the latter breathes out and clings to the bed for dear life. After being laced up, the young lady complains to her sister that she can’t breathe and acts like she can’t walk very well in the stiff garment. However, for the sake of their family’s self-respect, she determines to wear it and seems not the least bit troubled by it during the rest of the evening. What amazes me is that a seventeen-year-old girl in 1906 seems not to have worn a corset before. Her mother has failed her greatly in not shaping her waist when she was young! If she is uncomfortable in this scene, she can’t be entirely blamed as a complainer, since it is unwise to lace up a corset as tight as possible the first time you put it on. Both you and the garment need time to adjust to each other. Nevertheless, I find it strange that the young lady, who is eager to be attractive to young men, is not excited to improve her figure with a corset.

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Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, and Phyllis Kirk in Two Weeks with Love, 1950

In 1950, MGM at last provided a favorable and more realistic view of the mystique surrounding corset-wearing. In Two Weeks with Love, Jane Powell’s seventeen-year-old Patti dreamily laces up the older Valerie’s corset, heartsick because her mother won’t let her wear one until she is eighteen. “Don’t they give you the most wonderful feeling?” Valerie gushes. “Yes,” Patti fibs enviously. She spends the rest of the film trying to get her own corset and win her man in this musical comedy. Having worn corsets myself, I can confirm that, if well-made, properly fitted, and seasoned correctly, corset do give you the most wonderful feeling and an amazing figure, regardless of your body type. In this department, I am not going to recommend an Amazon product. They sell corsets on Amazon, but they are all poorly made. They are of inferior design, which is revealed by their low prices and the fact that they are sized as small, medium, large rather than by inches. If you are going to wear a corset, buy a good one.

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In Remember the Night, 1940, Barbara Stanwyck discovers old-fashioned love tricks as Elizabeth Patterson laces her up in her own old corset, which luckily, if implausibly, fits.

One of the best websites for authentic corsets is Timeless Trends. I have bought three corsets from this site. The prices are very reasonable for actual steel-boned corsets, since the average corset they sell is about $110. They sell corsets in all styles, colors, and designs and for women of every body type and experience-level. If you are interested in wearing Victorian fashion on a regular basis, you may want to consider waist training so that you can achieve an impressive hourglass silhouette. Wearing a corset is a great way to give definition to any figure, and rounder women will be pleased to realize that they can get a dramatic hourglass with much less corset reduction than thinner women! I encourage you to read the information on this website and other corset sites to set if corseting is for you. Contrary to popular belief, corsets don’t break ribs, damage your organs, restrict your breathing, or damage your health if worn properly. On the contrary, they have been known to aid weight loss, improve posture, and increase self-confidence! My only advice is measure yourself very carefully to be sure that you order the right corset. Once you receive your corset, don’t lace it up as tightly as possible. Like the ladies in the movies I have mentioned, you will find yourself uncomfortable very shortly. Season your corset over a two week period or more as described by experienced waist trainers, such as Lucy of Lucy’s Corsetry, who wrote an in-depth article about seasoning here. Lucy has a huge database of available corsets and her reviews of them. The other site which I recommend is What Katie Did, which I recommended in my original Foundations article for their girdles. They also make many fine corsets, which are more expensive than those from Timeless Trends but are very glamorous and designed for a mid-century look rather than necessarily a Victorian style. For this reason, they may be better for more modern vintage fashion.

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Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in Pal Joey, 1957

As a final note, if you are serious about vintage, film-inspired fashion, you will find a corset very useful for more than Victorian outfits. 1950s fashion is as famous for its hourglass look for ladies as the Victorian Era is. Were the popular actresses just naturally curvaceous? Usually not. Heavily structured corsets were worn during the 1940s and especially the 50s, but the Code’s policies on which female undergarments could be shown prevented them from being seen on the screen often. When Kim Novak strips in the Shurlock Era Pal Joey, we are afforded a rare opportunity to see what she is wearing underneath her clothes. It turns out that that perfect hourglass is achieved by a stiff corset, which you can see in the above picture. Personally, I have enjoyed achieving an impressive hourglass silhouette in 1950s fashion with my 22″ corset from Timeless Trends. It gives the look that extra touch of authenticity that leave people staring!

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Kathryn Grayson and Peter Lawford in Two Sisters from Boston, 1946

If there was a feature which Victorian ladies prized even more than hourglass figures, it was white skin. Victorians believed that fair complexions were very attractive, so light-skinned ladies preserved the milky beauty of their ivory complexions by religiously avoiding the sun. Damsels of darker hues can have dusky beauty and exotic charm, but fair women only freckle and redden, which was unthinkable to nineteenth-century beauty standards! To protect their skin, Victorian women carried parasols. These useful tools are like umbrellas, but they are designed for blocking the sun rather than the rain. They quickly became fashionable accessories as well as useful tools, so they were very decorative and beautiful. You can still buy them today, and they are just as practical, healthful, and beautiful as they were 150 years ago! I never leave the house without a parasol which matches my outfit. The main thing you want to remember is not to purchase one of those cheap parasols they sell in costume stores at Halloween. They are nothing but transparent lace and will do nothing but provide you with a very interesting patterned sunburn. You want a parasol that will actually block the sun. If you hold it up to the light and it casts a good shadow, it will protect you from the sun’s rays.

The above parasol from Amazon is a lovely one. It is very decorative and comes in a whole spectrum of twenty-nine beautiful colors, all of which have lace and flower designs on them. It is retractable and supposedly is water-resistant as well as sun-protective. It looks like a great choice! At $34.89, I would say that it looks like a very good value.

The above parasol from Amazon is the design which I have been using for several years. I have multiple colors in this same Battenberg lace pattern. Although the outer edges of the parasol provide less sun-coverage due to their lacy inserts, they ventilate the parasol. Thus, it won’t blow away from you on a breezy day, since the wind can go right through it! It is wood and fabric, so it definitely isn’t water resistant. At $26.99, it is less expensive than the previous parasol, and it is a lovely and durable product. I will publish a future article on proper parasol use.

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That concludes my description of this outfit! I fear that I went far beyond just describing Jeanette MacDonald’s costume in San Francisco. This turned into a full-length description of Victorian fashion! Perhaps it has a good purpose, though. As it is the beginning of September, many people are already turning their thoughts to Halloween. If you are planning on wearing some Victorian fashion as your costume, you may find my guidelines useful when creating your outfit. In the right ensemble, you can experience your own costume drama!

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If you want to observe Miss MacDonald’s style for yourself, I suggest that you purchase the movie and study her outfit firsthand! Click the above image to purchase San Francisco on DVD at Amazon.

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Calling all Phans to PEPS! This year, on September 23-25, I, Rebekah Brannan, will be hosting The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon. The title tells you exactly what it is. This blogathon will be dedicated to all adaptations, spin-offs, prequels, and sequels of the immortal tale The Phantom of the Opera! As devoted Phans, my sister and I could not let the 110th anniversary of the beginning of the original novel’s serialization in the newspaper Le Gaulois pass without some form of commemoration. I invite all of you to celebrate this wonderful event by joining The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon! Now, stay away from trapdoors, beware of shadows, and always keep your hand at the level of your eyes, because we’re off to the Paris Opera!

Remember, take pictures of yourself in vintage style and send them to me to be featured in a future Film Fashion Fridays article! I will gladly republish your pictures, advice, and experiences in vintage clothing for others to see and read. Let’s make Friday a day for film fashion!

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To every Glamour Girl and Dapper Dan, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”

Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!

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7 thoughts on “Film Fashion Fridays: 11. Jeanette MacDonald’s Shirtwaist and Walking Skirt in “San Francisco” from 1936

  1. The shirtwaist and skirt look is classic because of its adaptability.

    I enjoyed learning many things about Victorian fashion (and 1950s) through your article.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Costume Drama Blogathon – Day Two Recap – MOON IN GEMINI

  3. Pingback: The Costume Drama Blogathon is Here! – MOON IN GEMINI

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