Battling hijab hair and the basic black wardrobe, Belinda Jackson finds fashion flourishing in Iran.
Sinfully early in the morning, as I wait my turn to pass through Iranian customs at Tehran airport, I watch a Chinese girl being rejected from entering the world's first Islamic republic because she isn't wearing a headscarf. Iran's Islamic dress code, or hijab, requires all females above the age of nine to cover their heads. The Chinese tourist doesn't appear to speak English or Farsi and she radiates confusion.
Finally, a businessman in the queue takes the limp lime green scarf from her hand and ever-so-tenderly covers her hair, knotting the cloth under her chin. She smiles gratefully and is let loose.
As far as opening lines go, the phrase “I'm doing a story on fashion in Iran” raises eyebrows and outbreaks of giggles outside the country.
The most common perception of Iranian fashion is the all-black, all-encompassing chador that cloaks a woman from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Photographing a woman in a chador is surely like photographing a black hole – it's as if a void has walked into your camera's lens.
In reality, chadors are worn only by women from very traditional or religious families, while most others opt for the more liberating roopoosh or manteau, a mid-thigh coat that is buttoned or zippered down and belted at the waist. Chic Tehrani girls push the boundaries, the shorter and tighter the better. In fact, the even more conservative niqab, where the women's face is veiled, leaving only her eyes visible, is almost unheard of now in Iran and long skirts are so out.
Fashion is well and truly alive, even in a country where it is illegal for women – Iranian or foreign, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian – to appear in public with their heads bare, where arms and legs should be covered and where bright lipstick, considered a siren of sexuality, is frowned upon.
Sogol, a slim, elegant Tehrani girl, lays it down with authority: “The best places to shop are Benetton, Zara and Esprit. And then of course, there's Ghaem Mall, up here in Tajrish in the north of the city,” she rattles off effortlessly. “Oh, and Midan Mirdamad is good too,” adds her equally glamorous friend, Elmira.
Skinny jeans with a narrow leg and open-toed shoes are hot, as are capri pants that flash an ankle. Headscarves are tied under the neck, Iranian girls making glamorous what I previously considered a frumpy 1960s housewife style. Handbags, shoes and scarf must all match and slim is definitely in. Iranian women's figures are, on the whole, sensational.
Had I known that bright headscarves are all the rage, I would have packed my rainbow of vivid scarves. I read (and subsequently ignored) the advice of a dozen boring websites and guidebooks which told me such porkies as I must wear socks with my sandals, throw my lipstick out and go chador shopping.
So I laughed and also cringed when I read a passage from the awfully-named but quite beautifully written Lipstick Jihad, a memoir of a young Iranian-American woman who moves to Tehran to work as a journalist in 2000, moaning over her bad wardrobe.
“The roopoosh ... made me look like one of those poor, shrouded tourists, who had clearly packed according to the dated advice in a Lonely Planet guide and gazed in amazement at Tehrani women scampering around in stiletto sandals and short tunics that cinched at the waist.”
I did, however, take the guidebooks' advice that muted tones of grey, dark green and blue are most common and at least half of the population wears black – which in the East is a statement of respectability not a fashion statement.
Sogol sets me right on that score. “White is this season's must-have colour,” she tells me, and all around us, girls are sporting cream and bright white scarves that set off their olive skin and beautiful dark eyes perfectly. Aqua manteaus are also hot and canny shop owners are stocking handbags and shoes to match.
Many other colours, including burgundy and army-strength khaki, are frequently spotted as my guide, Reza, and I totter around Golestan Palace, the bazaar and the city's former arsenal that is now a cool park with cafe and art gallery where the hip set sips chilled rose-petal cordials in the afternoon.
As it was, I left my hairdryer at home (who needs to do their hair when it's covered all day?) though taking off my scarf reveals the horrors of hijab hair. Flattened to a pancake, it's none-too-flattering after a day under wraps.
Chic Tehrani girls tease the life out of their locks – dyed blonde, red or caramel – so the fringe stands up like a '60s quiff with a scrap of scarf draped oh-so casually over it – the more hair showing, the better. Actually, the boys are doing the same, without the scarf; long, lush dark hair is gelled into gravity-defying waves that give them another 15 centimetres' height.
Nose jobs, once the preserve of the rich, have been hot in Iran for at least 15 years, though I saw only a handful of noses sporting the tell-tale plaster, mostly on young guys.
The exception to this blaze of colour is in Iran's second-holiest city, Qom. I slip on my black scarf and closed shoes yet, for the first and only time, I get yelled at: a strand of hair has escaped from underneath my black scarf. “Keep your hijab on!” yells a woman loudly and angrily. Of course, everyone turns to stare at me. I think she's yelling as I'm photographing a motorcycle with Persian carpet panniers, but my guide, Abdullah, corrects me, I fix my scarf and we visit the gracious mausoleum-cum-mosque Hazrat-e Masumeh. But not before I leave my camera at the gate and, for the first and last time during my visit to Iran, don the chador.
The chador is a massive, semi-circular piece of fabric that is thrown over your head and body. It has no hooks or buttons; a woman holds the material with her hands or teeth. Most chadori clutch the garment beneath their necks in what looks like a state of perpetual anxiety, while others will wrap it under one arm, like a sari. The chadors are on loan from a man out the front of the mausoleum. He pulls one out of its plastic wrapper and gives me a brief demonstration of how to wear it. The light fabric swirls pleasingly around my ankles but the colour is off-white with a weird, Holly Hobby-esque pattern on it. None of the other women are wearing chadors like this, so, proving once and for all that fashion pervades all dress, no matter how conservative, I take it off and ask for black instead. He stares at me, then turns to Abdullah as he grabs a black chador. “Women,” he says in Farsi, with a roll of his eyes. “They're all the same, no matter where they come from.”
As on arrival, I leave the Islamic Republic in the bleak darkness of a very early morning. Too early for make-up. I hand my passport to the handsome young security guard who peers at my photograph – coiffed short blonde hair and eyes wide with mascara – then looked up at the reality – a badly tied scarf and eyes small with lack of sleep. He draws a finger across my photograph's lips, with my beloved vivid Elizabeth Arden red lipstick, shakes his head and waggles the finger sternly. He closes my passport and I walk into the neutrality of the international airport lounge.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Tours.
Lipstick Jihad (2005, PublicAffairs Books), by Azadeh Moaveni, is a great insight into modern Tehrani society. Women can enter Iran in any mid-thigh jacket, kaftan or tunic, then go shopping. In Tehran, check out the handkerchief-size shops in Ghaem Mall for the latest fashions. Badly made manteaus cost about $15 in the markets and easily $50 in the boutiques — expect to barter. Luscious scarf stores abound. Men, leave your shorts at home.
Tehran and Shiraz have international airports. From Australia, a good option is to fly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi with Etihad or Emirates and connect into Iran.
Intrepid Tours' Iran Adventure is a 15-day trip with exceptional guides, visiting Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Kashan, priced from $2235 a person. See intrepidtravel.com.
VISAS AND CURRENCY
Australians can easily obtain a visa on arrival at Tehran and Shiraz airports. Visas cost $US50 ($58), payable only in US dollars or euros. ATMs don't work with foreign cards in Iran, so you'll have to bring in all your spending money. Most currencies can be exchanged into Iranian rials at the reliable money changers in Tehran Bazaar. See tourismiran.ir.