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

Models carry protest signs as they present creations by German designer Karl Lagerfeld as part of his Spring/Summer 2015 women's ready-to-wear collection for French fashion house Chanel during Paris Fashion Week September 30, 2014. Karl Lagerfeld created an immense Boulevard Chanel for his fashion show on Tuesday, even staging a street demonstration by fashionably dressed models for Spring/Summer 2015.
Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
We think Coco would approve.
By Marc Bain
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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.

AP Photo
1954: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in the studio above her Paris salon.

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.

AP Photo
1933: Marlene Dietrich, one of the most famous actresses of the time, wears a “masculine style” pant suit by Coco Chanel location.
AFP/Getty Images
1944: During World War II, Chanel had an affair with a Nazi officer and reportedly spied for the Germans.
AP Photo
1959: Looks from Chanel’s fall-winter collection that year.
AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
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.
AP PHOTO/Lionel Cironneau
1996: Claudia Schiffer models in Chanel’s spring-summer couture show.
AP Photo/Hiroko Masuike
2005: Suits from the Chanel exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
2008: The iconic Chanel jacket, rendered as a monolith on the runway of Chanel’s spring collection.
Reuters/Stephane Mahe
2014: A Chanel shopping fantasy by Karl Lagerfeld.
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
2015: Celebrities, such as actress Tilda Swinton, are still wearing Chanel’s classic creations.
Reuters/Thomas Peter
2015: Lagerfeld’s modern take on Chanel’s famed tweed.

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