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 out from 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.