The Temporary Gentlewoman

The Class Battlefield Behind Jil Sander’s Trench Coat

Text: Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite
Photography: Kenta Cobayashi

New Icons celebrates the stories behind particularly notable pieces from this season.

When we don a disguise, who are we really hiding from?

A long history of camouflage carries with it an equally long history of discovery—the established certainty that someone will unmask the “real” you. It’s an image immortalized in slapstick comedies and in high dramas: the moment when the truth is uncovered, the fake glasses removed, and the spy in the trench coat exposed by her enemy.

Sometimes a disguise can be so good that it becomes real, even if just for a brief while. During World War I, trench coats—the newest in waterproof technology—promised to protect elite commanders from the wind and rain and marked them as the upper class. Their coats demanded respect from the lower-ranked soldiers. But the understaffed British army was later forced to recruit officers from the working classes and outfitted these “temporary gentlemen” in gabardine, too. From the home front, it was impossible to tell who was a real gentleman and who was disguised as one. The democracy of the uniform eclipsed the realities of the class divide: hierarchies were pushed aside for the good of crown and country. For a time, it seemed like the disguise was working. But in the dirt of the trenches, ambiguities collapsed. There was no mistaking how cloth, cut, and tailoring marked the difference between an imposter and the person he aspired to be.

Clothes alone can’t make the man. The vision of camaraderie on the battlefield reflected in a sea of khaki wasn’t enough to raise a soldier above his station when the war was won. The trench coat was reimagined in the 20s and 30s for a new kind of war: the urban rat race. There, hierarchy reigned supreme again, and all assurances of equality were forgotten now that there was money to be made. In the throngs of commuters on city streets, a trench coat became a shield not only against the elements, but other people. The crush to have more, to be more. The moment before the mask is ripped away is one of deep dread, but the dissolution of our disguises can also bring relief, a chance to put down the shield, to unclench a fist. When our disguises fail us, we turn inward to find the armor of our ancestry, our grit, and our self-worth. Finally, finally, it’s time to come out of hiding.

  • Text: Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite
    Photography: Kenta Cobayashi