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1930s fashion. - 

Despite dismal economic circumstances, fashion made great technological and aesthetic advances in the 1930s, says Patricia Mears, co-editor of the book "Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s". Mears is the deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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Madeleine Vionnet orange cotton cutwork dress, circa 1932, Paris, gift of Genia Graves. - 

Even amongst the poorest people, she says, there was a strong effort to dress well.

"America was probably the best-dressed country in the world because we were so innovative in ready-to-wear," says Mears. "That sense of occasion that really drove the need to wear a suit...and the fact that you didn't have a lot of resources, so you really wanted to put your best self out there, I think was very important."

It wasn't just the economic downturn in the '30s that sparked a wave of fashion innovation, however.

"It sat very closely after World War I, which was a very revolutionary period that really upended culture and society," Mears explains. "Also, there was a lot of technical innovation going on in things related to clothing, namely with textiles -- the innovation of very lightweight, much more flexible, and larger and longer lengths of woven fabric were available to dressmakers and couturiers." 

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Madeleine Vionnet black chiffon dress with pintucks, circa 1930, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks. - 

Hollywood, naturally, influenced the style of the era in its own way--particularly thanks to one Fred Astaire, who would dance up and down the hallways to make sure his clothes fit properly.

"The fact that he was a dancer and that movement was so important--and that he was on the big screen, he understood the importance of properly-proportioned garments--I think was one of the reasons his style has such resonance today," Mears says. "He was one of those men who could wear a white tie and tails the way that other men wore pajamas. There was that sense of ease about the way he dressed."

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal