Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005


Villager photos by Christina Maile

An Iranian woman sports a risqué split on the side of her manteau, center.

Glimpses of a subtle fashion subversion in Iran

By Christina Maile

In Iran, when a woman steps outside her house, she has two choices:

She can wear the chador — a long, usually black cloak worn over the head and body, which, covering several layers of clothing, is kept in place by clutching it in one’s hands or holding the loose ends in one’s teeth.

Or she can chose the manteau — a shoulder-padded, dark colored, shapeless trench coat worn over long pants. Her hair must be entirely covered either with a scarf firmly tied or a maghneh, a hooded head covering, often worn by students.

The Islamic dress code, called the hejab, imposed by the 1979 revolution, mandates that from the start of menses, a woman outside of her home or in the presence of an unrelated man must completely cover her hair and wear long, loose-fitting clothing to hide the contours of her body. Any woman found to be “badly veiled” can by arrested and jailed by the morality police.

But as I photographed the busy cities and towns of Iran, I was impressed by the persistent individuality Persian women brought to their clothing despite serious consequences. This is partially helped by the availability of new styles that beckon from store windows, an unexpected result of the government’s foreign trade initiatives.

Take the manteau, universally called “the uniform.” Some continue to wear it soberly dark, long and shapeless. But on others, it has become form fitting, more colorful (light blue is the teen choice), embroidered and beaded, its sleeves pushed to mid-arm. The hemline, originally at ankle length, is now standard at mid-calf and on the younger women grazes the knee. The scarf migrates to reveal more of the hair, the fabric itself sometimes transparent and appearing in a variety of colors and patterns. Pants are often jeans, and they are tighter, flared, split, brightly colored. In warm weather, they are transformed to capris. And the ears, caught in the sparkle of earrings, suddenly glow behind loosened scarves.

Even the chador. From a distance, just more women in black. Yet each of those chadors has something remarkable about it. One is a fabric enmeshed with black shapes patterned like roses, the other an arabesque of diamonds. I hear the clicking of high heels as they pass. There is the twinkle of fingernail polish, sunglasses, jeans, the chador pulled back, the hair plainly visible.

Women now account for 63 percent of Iran’s college population, and in the midst of these bursts of color and pattern, there is a general air of studiousness and energy on the streets as maghneh-covered students with book-filled knapsacks jostle with the graduates toting briefcases. That is, however, if their fathers or husbands have given them permission to work; that is if they have been allowed to enter the professions of their choice; that is if the colleges have not limited the courses they are permitted to take.

And that is perhaps the first underlying paradox of the dress code, as many of the Iranian women were eager to tell me — It is that the clothing is both the most important and at the same time, the least important issue of their lives.

One of them remembered an interview with Shirin Ebadi, the Persian human rights activist who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize: “If my husband can no longer marry up to four wives, take automatic custody of my children, do violence to me by right; if I have equal access to jobs, to professions, to study; if my legal standing in courts and my value in society is equal to that of a man, then at that point we can discuss the hejab.”

And that is perhaps the second paradox. As long as women observe the hejab, their protests about the other issues of society remain clear political discussions. Yet for many it is only with these small modifications to their clothing that they are able to express their discontent.

On one of my last nights in Tehran, I went to a party where the removal of chadors and manteaus at the door revealed the women to be stylishly dressed with fashionable hairstyles and makeup. There was talk about politics, about the economy. Some of the men sang and played old Persian instruments.

When the party ended, I like the other women silently re-donned the “uniform,” which even after the months I had spent there was still for me philosophically difficult. I stepped outside. My hostess followed. As the car rolled away, I looked back. In the lamplight of the street, as if in some kind of symbolic empathy, there she remained, her unsleeved arm waving to me, her uncovered hair flowing in the cool night breeze.

In December 2004, the government announced it was planning new restrictions on women’s clothing and clothing shops.

Maile is a writer living in the Westbeth artists housing complex in the West Village. She was in Iran doing research this summer, one of her topics being how women have adapted and modified the mandatory Islamic dress code.

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