Fashion â€“ love it or hate it, it inevitably pops up in womenâ€™s lives and in practically every corner of the world.
In Iran, women are required to dress modestly by keeping their hair completely covered and by wearing long, loose-fitting clothing to disguise their figures. For those bold enough to flout the Islamic Republicâ€™s dress code, they risk getting fined, imprisoned, and worse, flogged.
Yet despite the harsh penalties, many young, fashion-savvy Iranian women have abandoned chadors and drab, formless coats for colourful headscarves and tailored coats that are subtly pinched at the waists and end at the knee.
While the strict dress code is mandatory today, it has not always been so in Persian history.
ANCIENT PERSIAN COSTUMES
Throughout the ancient world including Persia, both men and women used make-up, wore jewellery and coloured their body parts. Moreover, their garments were both elaborate and colourful. Rather than being marked by gender, clothing styles were distinguished by class and status:
The body was used freely and sexuality was often perceived as a gift from gods and was celebrated. Judging by the number of nude male and female attendants and personalities depicted, nudity did not seem to be a problem. However high-ranking females would not expose their bodies as much as ordinary females did as a sign of high status. (â€œComestics, Styles & Beauty Concepts in Iranâ€ on www.cultureofiran.com)
Nearly 2,500 years of customs, traditions and styles of dressing had already been established in the ancient Near East when the Achaemenian dynasty was founded in the 6th century BC. Although the fs infused Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian fashion into their culture, they soon developed their own styles as well.
Nevertheless, Persian garments at the start of the Persian Empire were simple and bore little distinction for men and women. Animal fur and leather were widely used, and most families produced their own wool which the women then wove intoclothes. Describing ancient Persian attire, Mahera Harouny, who is of Afghani-Persian origin, said:
A Persian, when dressing, first covered the body with white cotton underwear. Over this was placed a single garment a single garment made up of two pieces attached at the rear. The upper part was a circular cut of pleated cloth, the bottom a large long skirt. The skirt had either one or two pleats permitting a long stride of the legs. The top of the garment extended from the back over the shoulders and arms, falling in pleats in front, the large pleats providing ample arm movement, the sidepleats over each arm functioning as sleeves. At the waist, a leather belt pulled in all the pleats of the skirt. (From Harounyâ€™s unpublished treatise on Persian dance â€“ â€œRadif-E Raqsâ€)
With its growth, the Persian Empire became wealthier and along with it grew a demand for more luxurious fabrics, elaborate ornamentations, rare dyes and intricate hand-painted designs. From China came silk â€“ a new luxurious addition to the commonly used wool, cotton and linen. Gold and silver threads were also used to create striking-coloured garments. Other colours such as lapis lazuli blue, olive green, turquoise and several shades of brown were frequently used as well. In the meantime, purple came to be associated with royalty, while white became a religious colour.
Hellenistic culture was introduced to Persia by Alexander the Great, and in the ensuing Seleucid dynasty, Greek dress and customs became popular among the Persians. Similarly, the Greeks were influenced by Persian attire. However, it was only when the Parthians came to dominance that Persian influence became even greater, and Persian fashion was popularised all over the continent. In fact, the Syrian Queen Zenoba became so fond of Persian clothes that she chose them over designs from Rome, the centre of fashion then.
In the following Sassanian dynasty, there was a retaliation against foreign influences, which in turn set forth a period of Persian culture and art at its best. Members of the upper classes became exceedingly affluent and attired themselves in exquisite finery. According to Dr. Harouny:
The typical dress was a loose long sheath tightened at the waist and pleated at the knee. Over the sheath, draped much like a sari, was a stole of elegant material, usually fine muslin, which could be fastened around the waist to serve as an additional skirt or draped over the shoulder. Another style of the period featured a knee length dress, which revealed a pair of trousers underneath.
Not only were the Sassanian textiles soft and delicate, they often had elegant and creative designs of animals and trees on them as well.
INTRODUCTION OF THE ISLAMIC VEIL
Contrary to popular belief, neither Islam nor Persia invented the veil. Veiling has a long history in the ancient Near East as well as Mediterranean cultures and predates Islam by several centuries.
Assyrian kings first introduced both the seclusion of women in the royal harem and the veil in the Near East. Veils were forbidden for prostitutes and slaves, however. Beyond the Near East, the practice of living veiled, isolated lives appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia and among the upper castes in India.
The arrival of Arabs and Islam in Persia may have drastically altered its religious and social settings, but few changes were made to the overall clothing styles for the next several years. Apart from slightly shorter dresses and wider, fuller sleeves, the only notable addition to the Persian dress was Islamic armbands with Kufic designs.
Unlike in modern times, the first Muslims were not overly concerned about female attire; in fact, their practice of covering women stemmed from regional customs as Islam spread throughout the ancient world. It was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common for Muslim women.
Even then, it was chiefly women from the urban classes â€“ a minority of the population â€“ who covered themselves and lived in seclusion. Such a life of leisure showed that the family had the necessary wealth. Hence the majority, who were rural and nomadic women, did not cover themselves.
Persian attire remained more or less the same all through the 12th century. As depicted in tales from The Thousand and One Nights, women during the peak of the Abbasid period wore an open-front coat over their dresses, and a scarf or belt secured on the waist. Later on, invading Turks and Mongols from Central Asia introduced Persians to elaborate embroidery, which soon appeared the Persiansâ€™ long dresses.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Safavid fashion grew in popularity. Designed to rid the nation of Turkish influences, the Safavid dress emerged as an attempt to re-model fashion after ancient Persia. The women began wearing long, drawstring trousers with tight ankles with a dress that revealed the trousers in varying degrees. Over this attire, the women would wear a loose, ankle-length robe which was open in the front and had sleeves that were taut at the wrist. A large length of cloth resembling a cummerbund would be wrapped around the hips, and folded so that both ends hang from the front of the waist and reach just above the dressâ€™s hem. Some princesses would tuck jewelled daggers on each side of their â€œcummerbundâ€ as ornaments and for self-defence. Like the men, women also wore a cloak as part of their basic public attire.
The royal court and affluent women began veiling and secluding themselves from the public during the later part of the Safavid dynasty. While some form of all-enveloping Islamic veil â€“ which was not black and varied between regions â€“ was worn in Persia from the 16th century onwards, the black chador only came about in the late 18th century and among the upper classes.
In the countryside, women have always worn veils â€“ often with bright, colourful prints â€“ to protect their heads from dust. They also wore scarves with veils over them, which were then wrapped and gathered them at their waists to free up their arms.
Veiling for Islamic purposes became a more widespread practice in Persia as the years progressed. Nevertheless, the Persians were not impervious to the influences of European fashion.
The 19th century saw an introduction of European trends to Persia, as an increasingnumber of Iranians travelled to Europe and the Far East, hence bringing back more contemporary western designs and materials to the country.
In the later part of the Qajar dynasty, women in the Persian court started wearing a â€œballetâ€ skirt. This skirt was believed to have been an idea of the Qajar ruler, Nasser-al-Din Shah; having watched a ballet performance during a trip to Europe, the shah became enraptured by the tutus and ordered the women of his harem to wear similar skirts.
Pro-western, modernist ruler, Reza Shah also encouraged Iranians to wear European clothes during the Pahlavi dynasty. Moreover, he believed that the Isalmic dress code and hijab limited the countryâ€™s modernization and duly outlawed the chador in 1936, ordering the police to tear them off women who wore them in public. Homa Hoodfar wrote in The Women’s Movement in Iran: Women at the Crossroads of Secularization and Islamization that:
It was as though women’s head gear per se excluded women from intellectual activity: if women put on European styles of clothing, Iran would somehow miraculously transform itself and become European in its other characteristics. The combination of unveiling and education in one package derived at least partly from the elite’s awareness that, in the West, the veil had come to symbolize the backwardness of their society.
The edict caused an uproar, especially among many Iranian women for whom the veil was a sign of virtue as well as a source of protection and respect. Author of In the Rose Garden of the MartyrsChristopher de Bellaigue,quotes in his book an Iranian historian as saying it was as if ”European women had suddenly been ordered to go out topless into the street.”
Faced with this aberrant decree, some of the women chose to remain in their homes for months. Other, however, ignored the law and continued to cover themselves up with a chador.
The more educated or more modern Iranians however, embraced the ruling and wore western clothes.
Although Reza Shahâ€™s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, removed the ban on the chador when he became Shah, by then, dressing in western style was already the norm for both men and women and only a very limited number of women wore chadors. In fact, just before Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s, the clothing styles in the streets of Iran were very similar to that of Paris or London.
THE HIJAB REINSTATED
The Islamic Revolution took place in 1979 and it caused a major turnabout in the way the country was run. A new Islamic government was now in charge, and it saw modernization as a negative phenomenon which encouraged people to reject not only Islamic, but all local ethnic traditions while they adopted western ways.
Starting from a headscarf, it soon came to the more conservative hijab which was enforced by the government to â€œfulfil the wishes of people and to respect their Islamic valuesâ€.
As the new government claimed, wearing the hijab would be to demonstrate the uniqueness and superiority of the countryâ€™s culture, rather than allow it to be seen as backwards and inferior to the culture of the west. Once again women rose up in protest the new ruling on their attire, but their demonstrations were not successful in preventing the imposition of the hijab.
Today, Iranian women remain split on the topic of the hijab. For some, the strict dress code remains a mark of oppression and they find ways to rebel against it by wearing heavier make-up and trendy clothes under their coats.
Yet there are others who see safe haven in the mandatory veiling. According toWomen in the Muslim World: Personalities and Perspectives from the Past, wearing the hijab allowed women to move more freely outside of their homes and to â€œpursue professional and public livesâ€:
In leaving their homes, this upwardly mobile group is actually defining new roles for themselves, not defending traditional ones. In the same way, students who take up the [hijab] are able to move into areas that were once closed to them, such as attending classes, discussion groups and religious activities. Wearing conservative clothing protects them from sexual harassment and objectification.
Merging the old and the new, the religious and the secular has been an age-old struggle for Iranian fashion. It is also a struggle that will continue for many years more, just as the country wrestles to combine its needs for an ethnic and religious identity together with its need for progress and modernization.
This article was written with references made to Comestics, Styles & Beauty Concepts in Iran on the Culture of Iran website,Radif-E Raqs by Mahera Harouny on the Origins of Oriental Dance website, The Women’s Movement in Iran: Women at the Crossroads of Secularization and Islamization by Homa Hoodfar,Iran â€” Behind the Veil by Elaine Sciolino, An Historical Reviewby Shiva Balaghi, Women in the Muslim World: Personalities and Perspectives from the Past, and several Wikipedia articles.
” Merging the old and the new, the religious and the secular has been an age-old struggle for Iranian fashion. ”