In the sixties, my mother
was channeling Googoosh, who was channeling Maria Callas,
who was channeling
Audrey Hepburn. I long for those kind of echoes
June 20, 2005
The Shah of Iran had a lasting influence on my mother’s fashion sense.
Sure, political discussions faded out of my family’s dinnertime conversations
by the mid-eighties and soon no one would dare confess any royalist leanings,
but the Iranian royal family lingered in our closets for years, folded in deep
as my family’s nostalgia and longing for home.
You could see their influence in the hounds tooth suit in which
my mother dressed me for the first day of second grade, the starched
primness of its collar and the sharp pleats of its dainty skirt.
I think I was meant to look like an English schoolgirl from the
first part of the century. Which I imagine was the kind of look
the royal family itself aspired to in those countless photographs
staged at this villa or that all through the sixties and seventies.
You can, regrettably, still see their influence should you come
to my house and flip through any of my family albums from the eighties.
Several times a year on my mother’s injunction, the family
would head for the local Sears Portrait Studio for a “sitting.” My
mother would be wearing a feathered hat balanced at a jaunty angle
and my father would draw himself up stiffly in some suit retired
from a wedding long past. And I invariably would find myself engulfed
by the swaths of pink taffeta, my royal costume plucked from the
rack of prom dresses at Macy’s.
I like to think I have come a long way from all that, but the
other day I was at a relative’s house and found myself gasping
-- audibly, no less -- at the sight of a black lace G-string poking
a pair of low-rise jeans. Of course I see this sort of thing all
the time. Who doesn’t? But this was a twelve year old Iranian
girl at a family gathering. She turned around, flashing me with
the not-too-subtle pun emblazoned on her tank top: FCUK. I backed
away, nearly knocking over the girl’s grandmother as she
stood at the samovar pouring tea.
My, how things have changed.
My parents came to California in the late seventies. I went to
school with a handful of other Iranian kids, and it would have
taken you no time at all to tell us girls apart from our American
classmates. My mother was perhaps extreme in her formality, but
unquestionably every other Iranian girl was, like me, forbidden
from wearing shorts and any makeup except for a discreet swipe
of lip gloss. We did not pluck our eyebrows because, as our mothers
would not have hesitated to tell us, only whores did that before
they got married.
I do not mean any of this as an apology. I was never one to suffer
the prohibitions quietly. By high school I could duck expertly
into a bathroom stall before class started, stuff my jeans into
my backpack, and emerge wearing a cute little miniskirt. And when
I arrived on the campus at UCLA in the early nineties I was quick
to ditch my vaguely hippyish Northern California garb in favor
of the deep-cut T-shirts and vampish black eye liner that the Iranian
girls favored there.
Perhaps rebellion is always just a matter of degree, and I really
am getting as old as my mother. But these days when I go shopping
I can’t help longing for something different. I think of
my mother in pictures from Iran in the sixties, hair piled high
on her head, a stole thrown over one shoulder. She was channeling
Googoosh, who was channeling Maria Callas, who was channeling Audrey
Hepburn. I long for those kind of echoes, all those dissonant and
disparate elements, a style whose influences are not easy to trace.
There was an Iranian girl I knew at college, Suzy. She didn’t
hang out much with the rest of us and I never did get to know her
well. She wore faded Levis with little cropped blazers, cut her
hair in a bob, and her face was always bare but for a crimson pout.
One day she walked into a coffee shop on Westwood Boulevard, stopped
to chat briefly with a young American guy she recognized from one
of her classes, and then left us both to follow her out with our
eyes. You couldn’t have placed a girl like that easily, and
you would not have forgotten her.