She Stole My Style Travels – Fashion in Iran

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Photography: Sarah Elder-Chamanara

We arrived home from Iran late on Sunday night. It was over 24 hours of travel and because we were going back in time (not really but wouldn’t it be nice if we could?) we left Tehran at 5:05AM and arrived in Calgary at 8:00PM. To say we were exhausted would be an understatement. I always find it more difficult to travel back in time than to go forward and I have been catching up on a lot of missed sleep but I’ve felt the pull to get to my laptop to share the first of several posts from our trip. I took over 1,100 pictures so deciding how to break them up in to shareable (and manageable for me to write) posts has taken some thought but the easy and clear choice for my first post is fashion! And don’t worry… I won’t be sharing them all!

Let’s start with the common misconception that Iranian must wear burqas. They don’t have to and you will be hard pressed to ever see a woman in one while in Iran. Women in Iran however must wear loose fitting tops or jackets. The most common garment being the manteau (the word is stolen from French) which is a loose-ish and long-ish fitting jacket. I added the -ish because some woman wear their manteaus loose and others wear them extremely form fitting.

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An Iranian couple walking near the tomb of the famous Iranian poet Hafez in Shiraz, Iran.

There is a huge variety of manteaus and you will see women wearing every possible variation in Iran depending on their personal style, the weather, age, the region they live in and their interpretation of the dress code. One woman’s interpretation of the dress code is not necessarily anyone else’s. Iranian women definitely love fashion and it’s more than what’s on the surface. I wore skinny jeans the entire time I was in Iran under my manteaus and I wasn’t alone. Tights and skinny jeans reign supreme with the younger generation in Iran.

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Manteaus, hijabs and tights for sale near the Bazaar-e Bozorg in Esfahan, Iran.

Older and more conservative women often wear a chador which is entirely black and covers your head all the way down to your feet although you will see lots that are embellished with black details. What was interesting to see was that despite the heat (it ranged from on average 30 to 40 degrees Celsius while we were in Iran) a lot of women wore all black. I bought a very lightweight cotton scarf in black because it made feel more confident about adapting my style and I found it overwhelming at times. Taking it off for even the briefest of moments in fitting rooms or washrooms gave me immediate relief from the heat. I think that if you grow up with something it makes it perhaps easier because you just don’t know anything else.

Fabric for sale at the Bazaar-e Vakil in Shiraz, Iran.

What I didn’t realize before arriving in Iran is that some women choose to skip buying their manteaus and chadors in stores and markets and instead decided to go to the customized route. It only took me a couple of days to realize that the jackets that I had brought to Iran wouldn’t work because of a) the intense heat b) I was too conservative and c) I wanted to blend in. When we went to the Tajrish Bazaar in northern Tehran I spotted a woman wearing a light black cotton manteau that I was immediately envious of. I approached her and asked if she spoke English. When she replied “yes” I asked her where she had gotten her manteau. She turned around and pointed to the store in the picture below. It turns out that she had picked out the fabric and then taken it to a tailor who magically transformed it into what she was wearing. As soon as I thanked her I turned to my husband and made my request to do the exact same thing. I picked out black and white cotton fabric at the same little story and carried it two floors above where I picked a style out of a binder of the latest manteau styles and agreed on a pick-up date. I will bring material from Canada the next time I go Iran so that I can skip the step of buying material but I am totally a fan of the customized manteau!

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Women shop for fabric at a fabric store in Tajrish Bazaar to make custom made manteaus.

Women in Iran must also all cover their hair with a hijab (scarf). Another common misconception is that you will never see a woman in Iran expose any of her hair. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While it is the law, the majority of mostly younger women I saw showed more hair than me. I’ve read (but can’t remember where) that a person is able to judge the political climate in Iran depending on how loosely a woman wears her hijab. If that is true, I am optimistic because I saw some scarves that covered mere inches of hair than those that covered everything. I was mystified as to who some scarves stayed on as they appeared as if they were one light breeze away from fluttering off but they always seemed to stay in place.

You might be wondering if women wear their hijabs at home. Overwhelmingly they don’t. Scarves get removed almost immediately by younger women in Iran. Older women seemed to keep them on when guests would come over but not always. Keep in mind that the dress code was implemented in 1979 during the Iranian revolution which saw the foreign backed monarchy forced into exile in the United States and then France. When outside the home women wear all types of scarves and you can buy almost anywhere. Most older women wear scarves that are tied under their chins but most younger women wear their scarves draped loosely over their hair.

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Scarves for sale in Tajrish Bazaar in Tehran, Iran.

I was told my multiple people that I was dressed more conservatively than most Iranian women but I would say that I became more liberal with my dressing the longer I stayed. I felt like I had to find myself and my comfort zone with the dress code law in Iran and I feel really confident that the more times I go back the more confident I will be with my style. I would also like to try visiting in the spring or fall when the temperature is much cooler and the extra warmth of a manteau and hijab might be more appreciated.

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Counterfeit and non-counterfeit scarves for sale in Andisheh, Iran.

There are no counterfeit laws in Iran (that I am aware of) so every logo and brand name is fair game. This goes for high fashion brands Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Nike, Dolce, Dior and even restaurants like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway. I took the picture below at a small mall in the Tehran suburb of Andisheh. The Chanel scarves on display in the picture above and the Gucci and Chanel ballet flats below definitely weren’t real but you will see many women wearing them in Iran.

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Counterfeit Gucci and Chanel ballet flats for sale in Tehran, Iran.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the future if and when sanctions against Iran are lifted and the powerful big brands clamp down on copyright infringements. My guess is that the counterfeit market will be like that of China’s where knockoffs are still easy to come by but slightly hidden from the average eye.

Accessories are supremely important to the style of Iranian women. Sunglasses, nails, bags and shoes complete the looks of women in Iran. I brought two pairs of sunglasses with me: a pair of D&G sunglasses that are a few years old and a cheap pair that I picked up at Loft in April. If you follow me on Instagram, you will recognize the pair of sunglasses with the large gold frames in the picture below. I seriously LOVED these glasses but left them behind because the pair I had tried on had been been tried on too many times before and the seller didn’t have any other pairs… I’ve already added them to my shopping list of regrets!

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Sunglasses for sale at Darband in Tehran, Iran.

Nail polish can be found everywhere in Iran but the quality can be super hit or miss. Long nails seem to be a trend in Iran just like here with bright colours playing contrast to the common black manteau. I didn’t think that nails would be as prominent as they are in Iran but I was wrong. Women in Iran are just like women anywhere else when it comes to things like nail polish. We all love a pop of colour. Also popular are strong eyebrows and a red lip. I only wore a full face of makeup once during our two weeks in Iran but I did start carrying lipstick with me everywhere I went because it made me more confident and boosted my overall look.

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Nail polish inside a shop near Tajrish Bazaar in Tehran, Iran.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Iran and women. Women are strong forces in Iran who have opinions, who easily express their emotions, who open their homes and their hearts. The image we are presented with in the media is not necessarily representative of the true reality of women in Iran. I hope that this small glimpse into the fashion and style of Iranian women busts some common misconceptions and opens your minds to the idea that we have more in common than not.

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Women walking and talking arm-in-arm by Tehran Bazaar.

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