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Fashion, Iranian-Style

by HOOMAN MAJD

03 Sep 2010 23:278 Comments
378996_orig-1.jpg[ vitrine ] On my most recent trip to Iran, to Tehran in April of 2010 to be precise, I saw a tall, thin man wearing Thom Browne on a not-so-chic downtown street. Or at least that's what it looked like from a distance -- jacket two or three sizes too small, sleeves resting a good three inches higher than his white shirt cuffs, hem barely covering his derriere, and trousers ending more than three inches above his ankles. He was wearing white socks and black shoes, his hair cut was not that different from Thom's himself, and I had to blink to remind myself that I was in Tehran, and not on Spring Street outside Balthazar, where the Thom Browne/Pee Wee Herman (and, to a degree, Mad Men) style for men is as common as, well, any other uber-fashionable look on any given day.

On closer examination, of course, this man was not wearing Thom Browne, not even Banana Republic's or J. Crew's take on the look; his gray jacket actually didn't match the gray of his pants, and faded stains on the fabric testified to its age -- were the clothes from his father's wardrobe, or were the jacket and pants once parts of suits that he owned as a teenager? Either way, to Iranians neither Thom Browne nor any other designer would come to mind, and this gentleman would be viewed charitably as a poor fellow who could not afford better threads, or worse, as someone ommol, vulgarly fogey -- and certainly not someone making a fashion statement.

For a nation of people obsessed with their appearance -- and that includes men, who will dye as well as style their hair, pluck their eyebrows, even undergo rhinoplasty with the same zeal their female counterparts do -- and a nation of citizens who generally find European and American fashions and goods infinitely preferable to domestic or Asian ones, it may strike one as odd that when it comes to men's fashion, or more importantly, style, Iranians can be hopelessly clueless. That in itself can be charming of course, as my unwitting Thom Browne model demonstrates, or as President Ahmadinejad's trademark beige windbreaker, reminiscent of Members Only jackets of the '80s, illustrate, but it is curious nonetheless that the latest Hollywood film arrives on the streets of Tehran before it hits theaters in the U.S., emails "sent from my iPad (or iPhone)" originated from Tehran the same day they did from the U.S. (and before Europe), and millions of Iranian homes have access to hundreds of satellite television stations promoting all manner of Western culture, but Iranian men's style is somehow impervious to any contemporary foreign influence. Of course some would argue that men's fashion is entirely Western influenced -- hence the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance's recent approved list of haircuts (no mullets!) -- true to the extent that there's not much Persian about men's style in Iran -- but it is fashion completely removed from what is contemporary, whether affected by the youth with spiky gelled hair, tight, low-rise jeans (selvage, what selvage?), and tight T-shirts, or by middle-aged men in suits that essentially have no equivalent in the West -- shapeless, uninspired cuts, one virtually indistinguishable from another in either fabric or drape.

ghotbzadeh-khomeini.jpgIran's political establishment deserves much of the blame for the style vacuum that is Tehran, a city that once aspired to become the "Paris of the Middle East." Along with doing away with ties or anything frivolous in men's wear, from its inception as an Islamic system it emphasized a humble appearance -- clean, but not flashy or extravagant in any way. At first Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, didn't seem to care much about ties, clean-shaven chins, or fashionable duds on his closest lay associates, as evidenced by the coterie of advisors, Mehdi Bazargan and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh (pictured) for example, who would show up alongside him in Paris (or even later in Tehran) decked out in properly late-'70s outfits not unlike anything one might see on the streets of London or New York.

But shortly after the purges of "Westoxified" officials began after the establishment of the republic and those insufficiently loyal to the new Islamic regime were hounded from office or jailed, some even executed, ties became un-Islamic because they symbolized the decadent West (and, as some claimed, made the sign of the cross around a man's neck), and shaving was simply un-Islamic, meaning a clean-shaven, tie-wearing man stood little chance of surviving in any job that was even remotely connected to the government. (Any clothes that suggested an overly eager glance westward, or to the pages of GQ, were also, in a subliminal way, deemed suspect.) Over the years, many men, even pious ones who preferred to shave, trimmed their beards to stubble, sometimes barely visible, especially on graying men. And in an ironic twist, it took almost 30 years for Western fashions to catch up with Iran, as first the open collar and then the stubble and full beard, today ubiquitous on the streets of fashionable Brooklyn, became not just acceptable but fully à la mode in Europe and American urban centers. This has seemingly gone unnoticed in the Islamic Republic, where I, a bearded Brooklyn resident, am greeted with some measure of disgust by pro-Western citizens who cannot fathom why I, of all people, would needlessly contrive to look as much like an Iranian government official or hezbollahi as possible, and my explanation, that it is a serendipitous fashion in the West for those, like my friend Glenn O'Brien and myself, who view the beard or stubble as not only convenient but as he puts it, as "make-up for men."

The Iranian Foreign Ministry, though, is perhaps guilty of the most egregious style faux pas in the Islamic Republic, and its most visible one to the outside world. The ministry, which has its motto, "Neither East nor West -- Islamic Republic," inscribed in blue tile above its majestic doors, cognizant of the fact that both East and West feature suits, ties, and shirts, must've felt that doing away with the tie was an insufficient expression of independence, and decided to do away with the shirt collar as well. (Abiding by or subservient to "neither East nor West" applied to international law for a while, too, as evidenced by the nonchalant attitude toward the taking of foreign diplomats hostage in the early days of the Revolution.) But they chose to redesign the shirt altogether rather than adopt what was once, in the days before commercial laundries, a common Western shirt construction: the detachable collar. No, that wouldn't do, so the ministry's uniform is a shirt with a "collar" that sits higher than a shirt shorn of its collar would, but not as high as Victorian shirts (which were tied at the collar with a cravat or bow) would. The effect is unsightly and unflattering: suits, sometimes three-piece, buttoned up, and an unbroken expanse of shirt that ends in a tight oval around the neck. The suit is fully Western, as is the shirt. Except for that damned collar, which is "neither East nor West," but not Persian, either.

A few years ago, cognizant of that fact, the Iranian Parliament actually debated coming up with a Persian dress for government officials, a debate that for some strange reason anti-regime activists in the West decided was a prelude to making Iranian Jews wear the Star of David on sleeves. The debate went nowhere, of course (and Jews were never a part of the debate), for Iranians, as proud a people as there exists on the planet, unlike say the Indians or the Pakistanis, are loathe to be viewed by outsiders as exotic. (Iranian men won't even wear the one national footwear we have, the giveh, and I have been asked many times in Tehran where exactly it is I shop for them but have yet to see a single other man, other than the occasional peasant or laborer, who deigns to slip a pair on.) Iranian diplomats, and some other government officials, of course, continue to wear their ersatz Islamic uniform, but never the giveh. Thankfully neither the president, the first lay president since the earliest days of the republic, nor most of his cabinet (except the foreign minister), have adopted the Foreign Ministry look, instead preferring the fully Western collared shirt that they leave unbuttoned and open at the neck to go with their drab, indescribable shirts. And no self-respecting Iranian man not connected to the government would dream of adopting (and what I suspect some diplomats themselves dread having to wear) this peculiar Iranian version of what a chic shirt -- the only article of clothing designed from scratch by Iranians -- is. (One can't help but wonder if President Ahmadinejad, stylish as he is in his own inimitable way, were to undergo a subtle style makeover, whether our impression of Iran and Iranians might be a little different. Nicely tailored Black Fleece gray suit, ankle and shirt cuffs showing? Check. Alden Cordovan loafers? Check. Charvet shirt with silk knot cufflinks? Check. Hair and beard trimmed really short, say, like Jake Gyllenhaal? Check. Now, would we feel any better about his possession of a few nukes? Maybe not, but he might at least get an invitation to Fashion Week.)

It would be grossly unfair to the Iranians to decry their lack of style without at least mentioning that the last stylish American president was Ronald Reagan (crisply tailored brown suit, anyone?) and the last Democratic president with any style was JFK. And where else is the average Joe supposed to look for guidance when it comes to a real man's style? As for the Brits, Tony Blair complains in his recently published memoirs, with the typical inferiority complex of Englishmen when it comes to the aristocracy, that he thought the Queen viewed him as nouveau riche and an arriviste. Well, Tony, in a nation where nouveau is not better than no riche at all, perhaps if you didn't don the High Street look of the times when you visited Buckingham Palace -- high three-buttoned jacket, and worse yet, with sleeves that not only covered your shirt cuffs but extended to your knuckles -- maybe she would have at least given you points for trying. Couldn't you have asked her son, Charles, for an introduction to his tailor?

I often walk the streets of downtown Tehran, where most government offices are located, running from one appointment to another. No one ever throws a glance my way, and my clothes don't seem to elicit any reaction by a population I have come to believe is generally immune to elegant or stylish menswear. If I'm wearing a seersucker jacket in the unbearable heat of summer, I assume most people think I can't afford a nicer fabric, and if I'm shod in heavy brogues, that I'm hopelessly old-fashioned. But one day last spring I hailed a cab heading uptown, and tossed a lit cigarette away as I stepped inside. The driver, a clean-shaven man in his 50s, looked me up and down (I sat in the front passenger seat), and was silent for a few minutes. "Excuse me," he finally said, "and I beg your pardon, but may I make a comment?" Sure, I replied. "Again, I apologize," he continued with exaggerated Persian ta'rouf, "but surely it is unbecoming for a man like yourself, elegant and in fine clothes and shoes, clearly cultured and intelligent, to be smoking." Clothes sometimes do make the man, after all, even in the Islamic Republic.

Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ayatollahs' Democracy.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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8 Comments

What a delightful reflection on Iran's benign predicaments! Next time you're in Iran it might be a good idea to keep your eye out for more interesting and important developments. Perhaps you could use your family connections to find out why none of the senior clerics make any objections to the manner in which their religion has become an instrument of misery in the lives of so many.

The officials of the Islamic Republic can walk around in clown outfits for all I care. It's their 7th century mindsets that are destroying Iran.

Cy / September 4, 2010 4:59 AM

What a strange article! Really shallow.

Omidvar / September 4, 2010 6:05 PM

This is hilarious reading. Kudos to TB for publishing it.

Looking forward to reading Majd's new book when it's available.

Pirouz / September 4, 2010 7:30 PM

Had Mr. Majd bothered to extend his visits beyond Tehran, say to Kurdistan, Luristan, Balouchistan, Turkmenistan, or Khuzistan, he might have in fact noticed many examples of Iranian male 'fashion'. He might have even noticed how these local ways of dressing (unlike the drab Western style which even at its best reduces the male body to a silhouette) enhance the body, dignify it, and incorporate the wind through drapes and layers to animate it. Men wearing these native clothing in the central cities of the provinces are certainly not 'ommol', no matter what those who continue to impose a Western style as a sign of culture and cultivation might say, or write.

Houman / September 4, 2010 9:10 PM

Houman, have you read Majd's first book? In it, he details the 'fashion' of many an encounter, in provinces beyond the city of Tehran.

Don't be so quick to take offense. A mark of character is being able to laugh at yourself (in this case, being an Iranian male).

Personally, I find Majd's observations quite amusing.

Pirouz / September 4, 2010 9:28 PM

Did anyone read this sentence?

"my clothes don't seem to elicit any reaction by a population I have come to believe is generally immune to elegant or stylish menswear."

Perhaps people are too busy staying out of jail and avoiding getting beaten up to pay attention to your stupid clothing.

Ladan / September 5, 2010 9:15 PM

Ladan (9:15 PM), we read it. We know Hooman. So frivolous but, well, pretty much readable. He is so talented, why doesn't he write a novel next? A pity that, again after his 'begging Ayatollah,' he seems to be obsessed with his own beard or stubble. There it is mentioned on 8 (!) pages; it even made it to the index! Does Hooman here and over at FP quote from his new book? Should we order it? Does TB change fronts?

Fahad / September 5, 2010 10:20 PM

I would like to note the obvious: Tehran Bureau targets not only the Iranian reader. I don't have a problem laughing at myself or Iranian males (as Pirouz has suggested). But the article, whatever the contents of Mr. Majd's book, is missing the point entirely (that Western clothing is an imposed fashion) at best, and misrepresents the situation at worst.

Houman / September 15, 2010 2:23 AM