What women wear in Tehran

We’ve spent time in three officially Muslin countries in as many weeks and each has had a very different approach to the dress of women. In Pakistan (as Fiona says) women wear matching three-piece suits with a long, unflattering tunic, baggy trousers and a headscarf which, depending on the situation, might be left to flop around the shoulders.

In Dubai the focus on Western trade and tourism means that almost anything goes for women, though the locals all wear the cape-like chador that encases all but their face and hands. Ex-pats living there develop a sixth sense of when they might need to be more conservative, roughly the same as how kiwis know when togs become undies.

Iran is different again, and the most interesting. Womens’ attire is actually prescribed by law here, rather than just a cultural norm. Women must wear hijab which means a headscarf, sexy butt and elbows covered and trousers that go all the way down to the floor. The certainty of the rules seems to have given women license to push right up to them, at least in Tehran, the most liberal and cosmopolitan centre. There are plenty of chador wearers too. But young women in particular are pushing the boundaries. In the process they’ve created their own well considered and very distinct fashion.

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Many women in Tehran wear their headscarf way back on their head, certainly with enough hair showing to display their sunglasses, and likely much more than that. Some use special hair clips that create a fake kind of bun at the back of their head and let their scarf drape off. If you looked at them straight on you mightn’t know they were wearing a scarf at all. If you see them from the side the bob at the back elongates their head, giving them just the slightest sense of alien.

The manteau, a kind of mid-length buttoned-up tunic tied at the waist that ends up looking a bit like a short trench coat, is popular. You can see why Iranians arrived at this design. It’s flattering and fitted, while still covering all the required body parts. They come in all sorts of fabrics and designs with prints that wouldn’t be out of place in Glassons, or even Supre. Skinny jeans commonly complete the outfit, or leggings, or tight white pants.

Women pay a lot of attention to their face. It’s like their trying to make the most of the flesh they’re able to show. Makeup is thick and solid with blushed cheeks and bright lips. Eyebrows are chiselled into dark little parcels of hair that remind me of angry birds.

Special and surgical attention is paid to noses. Lonely Planet reports that 90,000 nose jobs are done in Iran each year. There are more than 3,000 plastic surgeons in Tehran who all help sculpt the apparently desirable ‘ski-jump’ nose. Colombia might be the global epicentre for butt jobs, but Iran seems to be it for rhinoplasties. I certainly saw more of the tell-tale nose bandages on the streets of Tehran than I have in the rest of my travels combined. Although, apparently, the bandages themselves have become a status symbol and it’s not unheard of for women (and increasingly men) to wear them even though they’ve no surgical scars to hide.

For me, observing the fashion here has become an early emblem of individualism and freedom-seeking which contrasts sharply with the conservative stereotypes the world has for Iran. If young women are comfortable pushing so clearly up against the clothing rules that the state has created for them, where else are they pushing that is harder to see? It also implies a difference of approach between younger and older, more conservative, generations. It remains to be seen whether there is also a difference inside and out of Tehran.

4 thoughts on “What women wear in Tehran

  1. You should read the graphic novel Persepolis (or watch the animated film). It is about a young woman growing up within an educated, liberal family in Tehran during the revolution, through the Iran-Iraq war and into the mid 90s. You no doubt know the history, but it gives a very interesting firsthand perspective to the issues you talk about in this post (and others).

    1. Thanks Ian, will have to try and check it out once out of the Iranian censorship zone. I hope things are going well for you in Timor Leste.

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