The Shah's 'donkey tail' rides in on wave of reform

Once snipped off by zealous Revolutionary Guards, neckties are back. You can even buy them in shopping malls - beneath a photo of Clark Gable.

It was compared to a donkey's tail, frowned on as a symbol of Western decadence, and sold only under the counter. But after 22 years in the cold, the irrepressible necktie is making a comeback in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There are no double takes any more at the sight of a man sporting one, although they are seen most often at private dinner parties and mark a fashion red line for any government official who values his job. They are popular mostly with lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and those who want to be different, but not outrageously so.

"I wear a tie because I want to look smart, and that gives me mental strength," said a silver-haired dissident intellectual in Tehran, who was wearing a gold- and navy-striped tie with a well-cut blazer. "It's not a statement that I'm pro-Western, but I suppose it shows you are independent," he added. "I don't wear one when I visit my father's village, though."

Ties are now available over the counter at upmarket men's shops, such as the Ark Boutique in the Golestan shopping mall in well-off north Tehran. "We've sold many more this year than last year," the young manager, Mohsen Shabani, said as he hovered over a rack of sumptuous, house-brand silk ties. Clark Gable, dapper in a dinner jacket and tie, was smirking wickedly from a framed photograph on the wall behind him.

Shopkeepers say there was never a written law against ties, but it was made clear they were taboo under Iran's strict Islamic dress code. Worn by the unpopular Shah and his ministers, the tie was derided as a "donkey's tail" by the Islamic republic's first president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr.

During the first few years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, the offending accessory was sometimes snipped off in the streets by zealous Revolutionary Guards. It did not matter that the tie was invented in Eastern Europe and so was not specifically a Western fashion.

However, observance of the dress code for Iranian men and women has relaxed significantly since the arrival in 1997 of the popular reformist President Mohamad Khatami.

Women's headscarves have become brighter and crept back millimeter by millimeter, while many women in Westernized north Tehran now flash painted toe-nails through open-toed sandals, a development that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

It still is to some hardliners, such as the former head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, who recently thundered: "Both boys and girls like to show off their beauty, but the way we're heading, a fire will be sparked that will burn not only them, but will also burn society and burn the regime."

Yet, in a sign of the globalized times, advertising boards promoting such fripperies as "Givenchy, eau de toilette pour homme," compete for space in north Tehran with the ubiquitous portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic.

Clerical leaders, who wear collarless shirts, still shun the tie, but are generally very well-groomed these days, none more so than Mr. Khatami, a middle-ranking clergyman. He wears fashionably frameless spectacles, keeps his beard neatly trimmed, and favors elegant, well-made shoes and crisp, pin-striped robes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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