Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, born in 1883, lived several lives before her death in 1971. She was the shrewd businesswoman who developed one of the world’s most famous perfumes, only to lose control of the company that produced it. She presaged the era of logomania with her own symbol, two linked C’s. Opportunistically, she got through World War II by consorting with Nazis.
But any woman today who loves elegant yet comfortable clothes owes her a debt. Chanel was one of the first designers to use jersey fabric in fashionable day wear—dresses and suits and pleated skirts—that moved the dial away from restrictive corsets and useless frills. And because Chanel herself loved to borrow men’s clothes, in 1924, she designed a woman’s suit made of supple Scottish tweed, so softly and ingeniously tailored that it was a joy to wear. To this day, the Chanel suit is a model marriage of practicality and beauty. The woman who brought it into the world knew that to move forward, you first had to be able to move. —Stephanie Zacharek
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.
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