Covered head to toe in silk and color
An Iranian fashion designer creates stylish clothes in a political climate that doesn't always welcome them.
Dressed in a deep-blue silk manteau and a white head scarf printed with a bright flower design, Mahla Zamani insists that she is not presiding over a fashion revolution in Iran. "Now, don't make this a political story," the fashion designer warns with a smile, as she steps into her workshops in a nondescript building in downtown Tehran.
There, amid cutting tables and mannequins pinned with her creations, Mrs. Zamani draws from traditional Persian designs to inject color and style into women's exterior garments, which for years have embraced one default mode: black.
"Every dress is a moving museum, and every country with a civilization has a specific, traditional dress," says Zamani, noting that Iran's history stretches back for several millenniums. She makes her point with a lineup of dolls decked out in period Persian clothes.
"This is 400 years ago, and look at the dress," coos Zamani, fingering the fine green silk of a doll labeled "Qashqai Woman." "Just look at the color! Even then they made shoes the same as the dress...."
"Revolution" is a loaded term in the Islamic republic, but there is no denying the spread of Zamani's fashion empire, as she helps usher in a new period of modern Iranian dress.
Since 2000, Zamani has overseen five women-only fashion shows in Iran. She created the first Persian fashion magazine, Lotus (www.lotus-journal.com), a high- quality quarterly that graces Iranian newspaper kiosks like a local version of Vogue, even though it is sufficiently sensitive to require approval one issue at a time by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture.
Zamani launched her new "Lotus" clothing line a few months ago, not long after Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told a group of students that Iran should develop a national dress.
Taking that as an indirect stamp of approval - one that can be used to deflect criticism from hard-liners on Iran's turbulent political and cultural scene - Zamani printed the ayatollah's words near the front of the latest issue of Lotus.
"I and you, as Iranians - what kind of dress do we have?" asked Iran's leader, noting that after the Islamic Revolution, when he was president, he had set up a government commission to come up with a national costume. The effort stopped at the conclusion of his term.
"Of course, I do not say that the design of this outfit must return to 500 years ago, not at all," Ayatollah Khamenei told students in Hamedan Province, adding that it was "fine" to "change your hairstyle, to wear a different outfit, and change the way you are walking.... But do it yourself, and do not follow [European and American trends]."
That is what Zamani, a former banker, says she has been working on for more than decade.
Since those words were spoken in Hamedan, she has seen renewed interest in her designs - and new clients that include government institutions.
"I want my people to be Iranian, to think about their past," says Zamani, whose repertoire includes bridal dresses, airline uniforms, and even recent orders for a type of uniform for women members of parliament.
All are loose-fitting and made with luxurious silks and satins. Bold colors characterize most, but one discreet rendition of the black chador includes a dose of bright orange hidden beneath the black outer layer and subtle trim, plain or with black flowers.
Iran's clothing history has seen some dramatic changes. For example, in an attempt to "modernize" Iran, following the lead of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1935 ordered that men wear European-style hats with brims. His troops killed more than 100 people during an anti-hat protest.
In 1936, the shah ordered women to forgo the chador. Though the head covering had been a tradition since pre-Islamic times, police were told to rip off any chadors worn in public.
"It's hard to overstate the grossness of this edict," writes Christopher de Bellaigue in his new book, "In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs." He quotes an Iranian historian saying the equivalent would have been if "European women had suddenly been ordered to go out topless into the street."
Today, Zamani tries to bridge the gap. She has designed variations without head scarves and hats for the European market.A year ago, she traveled to Italy, where interest in her clothes has been especially strong, to receive a designer's award for blending the modern and traditional.
The secret of fashion success and durability in Iran is to draw inspiration from Persia's rich history.
"We have to listen to the law. This is a Muslim country, and there is special dress that does not show the body exactly," says the English-educated Zamani, whose designs begin at $40 and go up to $10,000 for those outfits made from rare antique cloth.
Not everyone is impressed with current trends. When Zamani was allowed to hold her first fashion show in public, in October 2003, the conservative Jomhuri-ye Eslami newspaper derided it as a "hypocritical attempt to realize the evil aims of foreigners by snatching the Islamic covering from Muslim Iranian women," Reuters reported at the time.
Hard-liners still rail at what they see as eroding values, but some also consider change. The parliament that has requested that Zamani make a stylish uniform for female MPs is the same one that last year tried to pass an uncompromising fashion reform law.
The parliament, or Majlis, returned to conservative control in February 2004, with just a dozen women deputies, many of them conservatives who, before the vote, had to pass an ideological vetting process.
Disturbed by the trend of body- hugging manteaus and revealing head scarves, deputies vowed to protect Iranians from a "cultural invasion" by legislating a dress code.
The Tehran chief of police last summer warned Iranian women not to dress like "models."
The bill went nowhere. But one letter of complaint to reform-minded President Khatami, quoted by The New York Times last September, shows the tension of Iran's cultural battlefield. Deputy Eshrat Shaegh wrote: "How do you intend to resolve problems by allowing half-nude women to mingle and party with men who dress like women?"
Finding the right balance is tricky in Iran, where Zamani says the natural evolution of clothing should not be stalled by politicians.
"My work [over the years] is a sign of relaxation," she says. "I think they should free [people's choices], and never send the clock backwards."