Photo credit: efired / Adobe Stock
Before visiting Iran, I did my culturally correct clothing research and found out about the chador, the “traditional” Iranian dress for women. It is a long, black cloak worn over clothing that covers a female’s body completely, leaving only her hands and face visible. I thought that I might have to wear one of these cover-alls, too, and you can be sure that the idea made me a little uneasy. Yet, as a guest about to enter a foreign culture, I fully understood the importance of dressing appropriately.
Luckily my tour leader understood my dilemma. She simply instructed me to wear baggy, neutral-colored clothes, socks, and a headscarf. Her advice was sound (albeit very lacking in style).
Completely outclassed by the local women…
I arrived in Iran in a loose-fitting shalwar kameez (long roomy tunic and pants) only to find myself hideously outclassed by the Iranian women who dress with a great sense of style. Modern Iranian women dress a lot like modern American women, with one important difference. In public, they must always wear a long coat over their regular clothes and are required to cover their heads with a scarf. It is the law. The coat and scarf need not be black — the more adventurous fashion plates wear muted greens and beiges and even earthy reds. Their coat buttons can be decorative and it is perfectly acceptable for women to allow wisps of hair to frame their faces. Many females carry briefcases to and from work as they click down the sidewalks in high heels.
Beginning to understand the dress code…
So, on my second day in Iran, in the tourist city of Bam, I began making changes. I switched from my shalwar kameez to Levi’s covered by a stylish long coat that I’d purchased in a local market. From the back, my hair covered by my headscarf, some of my fellow travelers said that I looked like a local. Other travelers thought I looked like a Mennonite, possibly because I had chosen a black coat instead of one of the many other colors available. The important fact is that I was considered properly dressed.
Passing along clothing tips…
If other Journeywoman plan to travel to Iran, I recommend you make do with loose-fitting, modest clothing and a scarf until you get there. Then, you can observe the local women, find a market, and have the fun of purchasing an appropriate coat for around twenty American dollars. These coats are never fitted — they are very straight and don’t reveal even a hint of the body shape beneath. They should be long enough to reach your mid-shin and will probably have shoulder pads to make your new boxy look more complete. Like Iranian women, you can wear whatever you want underneath, including jeans or black nylons. You should not reveal bare legs or ankles, and if you wear pants, remember to wear socks.
Finally, always keep your hair covered. Your scarf can be folded into a triangle and then knotted under your chin. It is not necessary to master complicated knots or folds, as the under-the-chin method is very simple and, at the moment, very fashionable in Iran. (However, I must confess that by the end of ten days in the country, the novelty of wearing a head-covering had definitely worn off. The women in our group ripped the scarves off the very second we crossed the Turkish border).
P.S. Many current guidebooks and travel agencies still instruct women travelers to wear the chador. Be assured that it is unnecessary, except in mosques, where you can usually borrow or rent one.
P.P.S. Be aware that in the countryside, the women dress more conservatively than their cosmopolitan counterparts.
P.P.S. In hot weather, you can kick up your heels and cheat by not wearing a shirt under your long coat. No one will ever know!
Author’s Notes: This clothing advice is based on observations made in Iran in April of ’98. However, this is such a volatile part of the world that things might change. The political and religious leaders are continually determining the mode of dress for women.
As a woman, it is extremely difficult to travel solo in Iran. I travelled with a company called Dragoman in the United Kingdom. You can read more about them at adventure-center.com.
If anyone would like further information regarding Iran and my trip, I can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed reading this information, Marie invites you to learn more about her overland travel from Kathmandu to Damascus at www.mariejavins.com
More networking notes (2007)…
I am an Iranian woman who read your Journeywoman article about how to wear [dress] in Iran. That was amazing to find this article on [the] net. Now, everything changes in our country. You do not need to wear socks, and coats are not so long, they can be printed in designs and short but with long sleeves to reach your wrists. Coats can be fitted now but not tight. You still should wear a scarf but not as before. Now they are long rectangular pieces of cloth that are used to cover your hair but not completely.
Sibora, Iran (2007)
I found this Reuters news item about culturally correct clothing and behaviour in Iran in our local paper (October 12, 2007). I thought it would be helpful for women travelling to Iran to understand this. ‘ Iranian police have warned 122,000 people, mostly women, about flouting strict Islamic dress codes since April and nearly 7,000 of those attending classes on respecting the rules. Such crackdowns … are an annual event and usually last a few weeks. But this year’s measures have been longer and more severe than in recent years… In addition to the dress crackdown, the newspaper quoted a Tehran police commander as saying 482 people were arrested for taking part in mixed parties. Men and women are not allowed to mix at close quarters in Iran unless they are family members.’
Beverly, Winnipeg, Canada (2007)
Marie Javins is a New York-based writer, Macintosh hobbyist, and comic book colorist who travelled overland by truck from Katmandu to Damascus with a group of females. In Iran, they experienced, first-hand, the traditional dress code for women.