Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was one of the 20th century's most influential couturiers. A milliner by training, she moved beyond hats to become a rebel and a trailblazer of the fashion world, creating a new sartorial style that freed women from corsets and lace frills by offering them sailor shirts and wide-leg pants instead.
"Nothing is more beautiful than freedom of the body," she once said, and her designs lived by these words: Chanel's silhouettes were fluid and androgynous, her designs loose and -- in the case of her iconic little black dress, or LBD -- democratic. She wanted women to move and breathe in her clothes, just like men did in theirs. Her work was, in many ways, a form of female emancipation.
Sunday marks 50 years since Chanel's death, aged 87, though her legacy endures. As well as revolutionizing how we dress, she helped form a new ideal of what a fashion brand could be: an all-encompassing force that could tend to all aspects of a woman's life, from formal attire to holiday wardrobes and evening ones.
Chanel captured her vision in "Coco-isms" that read like acerbic precursors of today's ubiquitous inspirational quotes -- "a woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future," or "If you're sad, add more lipstick and attack."
Here are 8 important style innovations from a designer who once famously said: "I don't do fashion. I am fashion."
Chanel didn't invent women's pants -- they had already entered wardrobes during World War I, when women started taking jobs traditionally carried out by men. But she undeniably popularized them as a fashion garment.
The designer liked wearing pants herself (she often borrowed them from her male lovers), and, as early as 1918, began sporting flowy "beach pajamas" while vacationing on the French Riviera. Drawing inspiration from the straight, wide cuts of sailor's pants, giving them a loose, comfortable shape, she matched them with oversized shirts or sleeveless tops.
The garment considered risqué at the time, due to pajamas' association with the bedroom, but by the mid-1920s it become a staple among wealthy ladies and a fixture of Chanel's collections.
French sailors and fishermen had been sporting Breton tops -- striped sweaters made from tightly knit wool to protect them from the elements -- since the 19th century. Chanel, however, turned them into fashion.
Striped pieces appeared in her boutique in the society resort of Deauville, Normandy, in the 1910s. She reworked them in jersey, giving them patch pockets and accessorizing them with thick belts. The nautical look was casual, and far less serious than the stiff aesthetic of the Belle Époque, quickly becoming a hit among stylish women both on and off the beach.
Soon enough, Breton stripes could be found in the pages of both British and American Vogue. And even today, chances are you have some in your closet.
The little black dress
In 1926, Vogue published a drawing of a simple, calf-length black dress fashioned from crêpe de Chine. It featured long narrow sleeves and a low waist, and was adorned with a string of pearls. The magazine described it as "Chanel's Ford," referring to the at-the-time wildly popular Model T. In other words, it was a garment so simple it could be accessible to any shopper -- "a sort of uniform for all women of taste," as the publication put it.
The ensemble was dubbed the "little black dress," and the rest is history. During the Great Depression, the LBD became the outfit of choice for an entire generation of female consumers, and, in later decades, an essential part of women's wardrobes everywhere. Countless iterations and imitations have followed, but the understated elegance of Chanel's original number remains unmatched.
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Chanel loved jersey. The fabric was especially prominent in her sportswear-influenced pieces, much to the shock of her clientele, which was used to satin and silk.
It was an unusual choice for the time: Jersey had, until then, been mostly used for men's underwear.
But it was easy to work with and comfortable, encapsulating everything the designer wanted to create for her customers. Importantly for Chanel, ever the entrepreneur, it was also relatively cheap, and helped keep costs down as she established herself and her label.
She was the first designer to popularize jersey in women's fashion, using the material for dresses, skirts, sweaters and more -- a tradition Lagerfeld maintained as creative director in the decades following her death.
Written by Marianna Cerini
pictures: Wikimedia Commons/ Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images