By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Women in high-heeled shoes and plenty of make-up strut down the catwalk amid clouds of artificial smoke.

It is the first time live models have been allowed to appear in a fashion show in post-revolutionary Iran.

Iran fashion show

The only unusual aspect is that they are all wearing Islamic dress; including some draped from head to toe in the all enveloping chador.

It’s part of a new drive to give women more attractive choices of Islamic dress that allow them to express their individuality, while remaining within the letter of the law.

Not everyone in the all female audience was happy.

“I don’t think ordinary people will like this show because everything comes from Arab culture,” complains Faranak who says she wants something more Iranian and indigenous.

Her friend agrees: “Here we didn’t see anything interesting – in terms of colours and designs we have much better stuff; just look on the streets of Tehran they’re wearing much better clothes”.

‘Western dolls’

Many of the women on the streets of Tehran do indeed look more like Western fashion models than the models on the catwalk.


Sardar Ansari
We want to guide designers to meet the needs of society, not to get ideas about fashion from satellite television
Sardar Ansari, Iranian police force

In skimpy tight overcoats and high heeled shoes and token headscarves perched on the back of their dyed hair, they are what the authorities call “western dolls”.

Many young women born after the revolution do not seem to have accepted the official idea of Islamic dress.

Conservative MP Rafat Bayat, who always wears a black chador, believes the problem is the state never educated young people properly.

“The generation born after the revolution has grown up in families that do not believe in these principles and they are estranged from these laws,” she says.

“We thought there would be no problem because we had an Islamic Republic and we thought everyone knew the constitution,” says Mrs Bayat with regret.

According to the law, a woman who does not cover her hair and body in public can be fined or imprisoned for up to two months.

But there are hundreds of shops throughout North Tehran selling glamorous strapless dresses and low-cut, beaded tops for women to wear at parties.


During the reformist period, restrictions were relaxed to allow women to wear bright colours for the first time since the revolution.

But right-wing conservatives are outraged by what they see as western permissiveness now creeping into Islamic dress.

Women's dress styles on an Iranian street

Rules apply to all mature females, but interpretations differ sharply

There is also a growing awareness that heavy-handed police action like raids, arrests and closure of fashion boutiques simply do not work.

And interestingly, though he is an ultra conservative, President Ahmadinejad did not bring about the crackdown on un-Islamic dress that many feared.

“Observance of hijab has got worse since the new government because Mr Ahmadinejad is not that strict on this issue,” complains Mrs Bayat.

“Mr Ahmadinejad thinks we should not use force when acting on this issue so as a result hijab has become weaker” she says.

New models

Aware that imposing Islamic dress by force hasn’t worked, Iran’s police decided to hold their own fashion exhibition recently to educate women about what they should be wearing – though there were no live models.

“We want to guide our designers to meet the needs of our society,” explained Sardar Ansari of the Iranian police force. “We don’t want them to get their ideas about fashion from satellite television.”

Police display of unsuitable clothing and behaviour

What not to wear – according to Iran’s police authorities

The police exhibition included displays about what is considered un-Islamic dress and an attempt to convert young women to wearing the chador.

For many older women it’s a symbol of their commitment to the revolution. But young women are increasingly turning away from the chador – it’s expensive, hot and difficult to wear.

So chador designers have come up with new models to make them more stylish and practical, for example a chador with sleeves.

“The traditional chador is a semi circle of cloth, and keeping it on your head is really hard and you absolutely have to wear something underneath – an overcoat and headscarf – to complete your Islamic dress.

“But by wearing this new type of chador it’s not necessary to wear an overcoat underneath,” says designer Fahimeh Mahoutchi

Increasingly there is a recognition that women – rather than men – should be the ones who decide what kind of Islamic dress they wear.

“Clothing is not something you can impose from outside; it is something you should accept willingly and instinctively,” says Mrs Ghandforoush from the provincial governor’s office.

“Each person has his own particular background and attitude to dress.”

In other words, the establishment realises that the children of the revolution are rebelling against drab, uniform-style clothing, and it wants to keep them in line by offering a little glamour.


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