Photos: On Coco Chanel’s birthday, remembering how she reinvented the way women dress

We think Coco would approve.
We think Coco would approve.
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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Gabrielle Chanel was born 132 years ago today, on August 19, 1883. And while there’s no particularly momentous reason for remembering her this year, the fashion house which took her name—Chanel—is as strong a force as ever.

And for that matter, so are her clothes. Chanel—better recognized as Coco Chanel, for her stage name as a young café singer —completely changed women’s wardrobes. She created the little black dress, a style still so popular today that it’s often just referred to by the acronym, LBD. She made women’s clothing that was sporty, and was the first to use jersey, a material that had previously been relegated to humble garments such as men’s underwear.

Her simple, uncluttered clothes helped to liberate women from corsets, making it easier for them to move and actually do things. She pioneered androgyny, pulling influences from menswear and putting women in separates.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, back in the fashion world after a lapse of 15 years, relaxes in her book-lined studio above her Paris salon April 21,1954.
1954: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in the studio above her Paris salon.
Image: AP Photo

In fact, Chanel’s most iconic creation—her famed bouclé tweed suits—came directly from menswear, so much so that the style was deemed masculine. Even her use of tweed came from what guys were wearing—she started using it after borrowing garments from her beau at the time, the Duke of Westminster, and finding she liked the fabric.

Chanel died in 1971. Her legacy is undoubtedly mixed. She was not known for kindness, and she is said to have spied on behalf of the Nazis during World War II. But she was also incredibly driven and entirely self-made. Placed in a religious orphanage as a young girl, she learned to sew, and used the skill to eventually build a business that made her the richest woman in France in the 1930s.

But her personal history aside, there’s no doubt about her influence in fashion. Since Karl Lagerfeld took over Chanel in 1983, he’s again turned it into one of the industry’s most powerful and influential companies. His spectacular runway shows for Chanel have become the biggest events of the season, and he continues to draw on the company’s rich history, especially that bouclé tweed suit.

Actress Marlene Dietrich wears a trendsetting masculine style pant suit created by French couturiere Coco Chanel in 1933 at an unknown location.
1933: Marlene Dietrich, one of the most famous actresses of the time, wears a “masculine style” pant suit by Coco Chanel location.
Image: AP Photo
Picture of the famous french high fashion designer Coco Chanel taken in 1944 in Paris.
1944: During World War II, Chanel had an affair with a Nazi officer and reportedly spied for the Germans.
Image: AFP/Getty Images
1959: Looks from Chanel's fall-winter collection that year.
1959: Looks from Chanel’s fall-winter collection that year.
Image: AP Photo
Chanel's top model Ines de la Fressange has her arm around West German designer Karl Lagerfeld as models applaud at the end of Chanel's fall and winter 1987 ready-to-wear collection in Paris, France, March 23, 1987.
1987: Four years after taking the creative reigns at Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld appears with model Ines de la Fressange at the fall-winter presentation that year.
Image: AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
German top model Claudia Schiffer wears a pink top with a black long skirt as part of Chanel's 1996 spring/summer haute couture collection designed by Germany's Karl Lagerfeld and presented in Paris Tuesday January 23, 1996.
1996: Claudia Schiffer models in Chanel’s spring-summer couture show.
Image: AP PHOTO/Lionel Cironneau
Chanel suits from various decades are shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Monday, May 2, 2005. The suits are part of a new exhibit titled "Chanel," which opens May 5, organized by the Costume Institute.
2005: Suits from the Chanel exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image: AP Photo/Hiroko Masuike
Models present creations by German designer Karl Lagerfeld for French fashion house Chanel as part of his Haute-Couture Spring/Summer 2008 fashion collection in Paris January 22, 2008.
2008: The iconic Chanel jacket, rendered as a monolith on the runway of Chanel’s spring collection.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
Models present creations by German designer Karl Lagerfeld as part of his Fall/Winter 2014-2015 women's ready-to-wear collection for French fashion house Chanel at the Grand Palais transformed into a "Chanel Shopping Center" during Paris Fashion Week March 4, 2014.
2014: A Chanel shopping fantasy by Karl Lagerfeld.
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe
German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, right, poses with British actress Tilda Swinton after the presentation of his 2015-2016 Chanel cruise collection at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, May 4, 2015.
2015: Celebrities, such as actress Tilda Swinton, are still wearing Chanel’s classic creations.
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
A model presents a creation of the Chanel Cruise Collection 2015/16 at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, May 4, 2015. French fashion house Chanel looked to traditional South Korean dress for its 2015/2016 cruise collection, unveiling a colourful inter-seasonal line at a catwalk show in Seoul on Monday.
2015: Lagerfeld’s modern take on Chanel’s famed tweed.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter