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Corbis Iranian women in the government-approved chador
Review of the first Tehran fashion show since 1979

TIME magazine
January 22, 2001

"I'd be laughed off the street if I wore half this stuff," said Malih Rashid, a 19-year-old university student, eyeing the clothes on display at a recent fashion show. But it was not risqué Madonna-esque cone bras or bizarre geometric exposures that raised her eyebrows. Knee-length tunics paired with matching pants, long reversible silk coats, and flowing opera capes were among the raciest items sent down the runway last week at the first fashion show to be held in Tehran since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolutionaries ordered women to cover themselves. Flogging is still a legal penalty for flouting the Islamic dress code, and a prominent leftist cleric, Yusefi Eshkevari, faces the death sentence for, among other things, advocating optional hijab (Islamic head veiling). Photos here

Not surprisingly, there were many, many coats. There were capes, wraps, stoles, so many types of outer covering that most of several hundred women in attendance forgot the more adventurous evening gowns that started the show.

Since Iranian women must conform to an Islamic dress code in public, the show began with what could be called a private view. The evening wear fit two categories: demure tulle gowns with spaghetti straps, and vampish black sequinned sheaths complete with fur coat and diamonds. As models with nose-rings and navels and shoulders sauntered down the catwalk to the deep bass of jungle music, the only aberration was the silence - no clicking of cameras, no beckonings to pose. Instead, designer Mahla Zamani commanded the microphone, calling out a running commentary on her creations. "Completely covered!" was the most frequent phrase, followed by "What a bright color!" The audience, a sea of darkly veiled heads, nodded approvingly.

Iran bans most of what these revealing styles are associated with: mixed gender parties, Western music, drinking. Pulling off such a fashion show required considerable spin: in this case, billing the show as part of a youth fair put on by a cultural preservation organization to support Iran's sartorial heritage. Despite what she sent down the runway, Zamani echoed the official line: "We should cross out the model of the West. It's not appropriate for Iran." But evidence of affection for, and imitation of, Western fashion was everywhere: emaciated girls in tank tops pestered Zamani backstage for a chance to model.

After only ten minutes, the "modern" part of the collection concluded. The twang of the Eastern sitar replaced the bass of Western music. The models now strutted down the catwalk in traditional Iranian provincial dress. "Village crap," was among the comments muttered as young girls settled disappointedly into their seats.

Zamani's provincially-inspired collection may not appeal to the Tehran fashion élite, but her wearable clothes are a significant contribution to this style-impaired nation. Her work is the first elegant collection specifically designed for professional Iranian women. Her cleverly cut tunic-pants combinations, in turquoise and olive with gold embroidery, would give women working in government agencies an alternative to the drab smocks that now reign. Her best uniforms were designed for Iran Air flight attendants, the famously surly "crows of the sky." They embodied the sensibility of her entire line: "covered and beautiful at same time," she says.

Tehran fashion, or at least what can be worn outside, is not known for its creativity. A placard prominently displayed in hotel lobbies to instruct foreign women illustrates the two possibilities: chador (literally, a tent), which is a large, expanse of black cloth sheathed unbecomingly over the head and body, or a manteau, a trench coat that must be paired with a veil covering the hair and neck.

There are signs of innovation, though. For the first time since the revolution, color is becoming publicly acceptable. Female Iranian students are now able to wear colored veils, albeit in restrained chocolates and greens. "This omnipresent black and blue is self-censorship," says Zamani.

Will the Tehrani women who flocked to her show rush to put in orders? "It's still not quite acceptable," says 40-year-old Simin Aziz of the brilliantly-hued look. But Zamani is a believer in incremental progress. "We'll start by dressing the employees of Shahravand [Tehran's largest grocery store chain]," she says. "All of Tehran shops here, and this will give courage to others."

The show closed with a bridal outfit. No attempt here to pay homage to Iranian tradition: the white Western-style wedding dress clung to the model's curves, sequins surrounded her considerably exposed cleavage, and satin gloves and a diamond tiara completed the ensemble. The dress would be a pricey addition to any wedding budget, given the enormous bribes that couples and families often pay to avoid having their wedding party raided by the morality police. As some of the guests at three New Year's Eve parties know, not even the perfect dress is enough to risk the consequences of getting caught: punishments include mandatory virginity checks and flogging.


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