Behind the scenes in Iran, where fashion could land you in jail.

By Cyrus Jarvis.

The issue of fashion, particularly the hijab, is a deep, growing wound in Iran.

In 1936, the Shah issued a decree banning all Islamic veils in public, resulting in women being beaten, their headscarf or chador torn off, and their homes forcibly searched by the police. This law only lasted until the Shah’s abdication 5 years later, yet it became the beginning of an enduring legacy in which clothes exist as an integral issue within Iranian politics.

In subsequent decades, the veil became a sign of backwardness, with public institutions actively discouraging their use. Many women were unable to study at university or even enter certain restaurants due to their veil, until a social change started to happen in the late 1970s. A revolution was taking hold, led by students, secularists, Marxists, and Islamists who were against the Shah’s oppressive regime. He was successfully overthrown in 1979 – only to be replaced by an exiled member of the Shi’ite clergy who established the Islamic Republic, decreeing that all women had to be fully veiled.

Almost overnight, the previously popular miniskirts, tight-fitting jeans, and short-sleeved tops became illegal.

Today, the laws are more relaxed. Following relentless protests and the election of more moderate politicians, tight jeans and sneakers are back, although always paired with a manteau (usually a knee-length coat or tunic) and a headscarf or hat. A short walk through Tehran makes it evident that almost everyone has found a way to twist the compulsory dress codes into fashion statements, despite the regime remaining hostile toward fashion. The Islamic Republic has been fighting said hostility on several fronts, like social media, underground boutiques, fashion shows, and modeling agencies that ‘promote vulgarity.’ Despite many shops and companies using models in Iran, it’s still a legal gray area where many have been arrested for modeling. Homegrown designers and brands such as Foje and Vaqar have thrived in Iran by operating underground, designing both manteaux that adhere to Islamic dress code and evening dresses that can be worn at a private house party or in one of the many illegal underground clubs.

In March last year, a fashion show in Tehran was raided by police, who arrested everybody there. The clothing adhered to compulsory dress codes, however the law took issue with fantasy costumes that included wings supposedly resembling “Satan worshippers,” and attendees who felt comfortable enough to remove their headscarves.

Iran’s fashion industry has made Tehran’s first and third districts its home, and with shops like AASSTTIINN opening physical stores, fashion shows have become an occurrence that the regime is struggling to control without the reimposition of harsh dress codes. The Iranian regime isn’t the only hurdle facing the country’s fashion industry; harsh sanctions on the country mean that it’s difficult for designers and brands to source fabrics, send their pieces outside the country, and sell them to foreign customers.

As for the streets, fashion police (or the Gasht-e Ershad) are on the lookout for those dressed inappropriately. Although men are targeted if they are seen wearing shorts, women are targeted far more often. A lot of the time it’s impossible to guess what fashion crime has been committed, or even if you are committing one in the first place – it could be that your hair is dyed, your sleeves are too short, your tattoo is showing, your nails are painted, your makeup is too much, or that your jeans have too many rips. On that front, people are fighting back using their smartphones; an app called Gershad tracks sightings of fashion police in Iran to help people avoid them, and has proven extremely popular. Women are also secretly filming their encounters with these officers and uploading them to platforms such as Instagram and Telegram, along with videos and pictures of them removing their headscarves in public spaces as part of a campaign called ‘My Stealthy Freedom. In stark contrast to earlier decades when wearing a hijab was a form of resistance against the Shah, removing one’s hijab is now a popular form of protest against an equally oppressive regime.

Homepage image via @aassttiinn