Corbis Iranian women in the government-approved chador
Review of the first Tehran fashion show since 1979
By AZADEH MOAVENI Tehran
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
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
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,"
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.