A designer tugs at Iran's fashion straitjacket

Iranian fashion designer Mahla Zamani is resplendent in an ankle-length skirt of burnt orange chiffon, stiletto heels, and a black silk coat, trimmed in green. A swath of white cotton decorated with bright flowers, covers her head and falls in soft folds about her shoulders. Chunky antique rings adorn her fingers, and bright lipstick stains her lips.

It is a rebellious take on Iran's strict dress code for women, but Zamani is unrepentant.

"I am perfectly covered!" she declares. "I am not trying to create a scandal. As an Islamic woman, I agree that I should be properly covered, yet I don't understand why that has to be at the expense of beautiful fabrics that are beautifully designed."

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the very idea of fashion has been anathema to the principles of hejab, or modest dress. Women have been forced by law to hide any hint of female beauty under a chador – the flowing black cape often associated with the women of Iran – or long shapeless coats in dark colors, topped with plain, unflattering scarves.

For many years, no one – not even Zamani – dared flout this dress standard. Fashion police – known locally as The Sisters of Zeinab, a sarcastic reference to the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter – roamed the streets arresting any woman who dared to wear makeup or bright colors, or allowed too much hair to escape from underneath her headscarf.

Women still must cover up – it is illegal to go outside without a scarf and coat to the knees – and the Sisters still keep watch on the streets. But things are changing.

Since Iran's reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, was elected in 1997, and again in 2001, Iranian women have taken advantage of his more open-minded approach to challenge dress restrictions.

Women are ditching the chador and dowdy coat for head scarves designed by Versace or Dior and tailored pea coats, subtly nipped in at the waist.

This spring Tehran's most stylish women are wearing red for the first time.

"I think Iranian women have lost color from their lives," says Pegah, an art student who wears red shoes and a red coat and declines to give her surname. "I want to teach them that it's OK to wear color. As an artist, I feel it's also my duty to help push society's boundaries."

Ms. Zamani, the self-appointed leader of this fashion revolution, wants women to go even further. Since 2000, she has self-funded three public fashion shows, a first for Iran, to show women how they can update their look while maintaining Islamic principles of modesty.

"I decided that since the (Islamic) Revolution 23 years ago, nothing had been done to change the way women dress," she says. "This is not normal. In every modern society fashions change, yet most women in Iran still wear the same outfits they did two decades ago. And so I have decided to do something about it."

Zamani bases many of her designs on the colorful, embroidered and beaded antique styles worn by Iranian women through the ages – evidence, she says, that adornment has not been off limits to women in the past.

Zamani says her mission is deeper than fashion. She blames the dour dress code for contributing to depression and suicide among Iranian women. A recent Iranian government study found women from the conservative holy city of Qom – where the somber dress code is more strictly enforced – were more likely to be depressed than women in more liberal Tehran.

"In Europe, black has always been associated with mourning," she says. "When you want to create some kind of terror you create a black atmosphere. I believe Iranian women feel a lack of joy simply because of the colors we have been forced to wear since 1979."

The theory has driven Zamani to lobby Iran's education ministry for a change in the uniforms worn by Iranian schoolgirls. She says the traditional navy blue and black uniforms should be changed to pale blue and green, yellow, and even pink.

"They listened to me, but nothing has changed yet," she says, raising her carefully sculpted eyebrows.

However, the Zamani influence has already been felt in other sectors. She has made clothes for the wives of Iranian diplomats, redesigned the uniforms of flight attendants with an Iranian airline, Mahan Air, and created stylish uniforms in lilac and cream for the staff of a new luxury hotel.

But Zamani is frustrated that normal Iranian women have been slow to adopt the colorful, well-designed fashions she promotes. "There is a kind of self-censorship going on," she says. "I tell them if you change to other colors and flattering designs, people will get used to it. But it is a slow process."

Zamani hopes her fashion parades, at which men are banned – lest they glimpse a flash of uncovered flesh – will prove inspirational.

"This is all very new to me," says Marjan Mousavi, a young secretary from Tehran who attended Zamani's most recent showing last month. "I would like to become familiar with Iranian fashion, and that's why I am here."

Not everyone is so receptive. The conservative newspaper Jame Jam condemned Zamani's show as propaganda.

"How can the minister of guidance give a license for such a show?" the paper asked. "It was nothing but propaganda for Western clothing presented in the name of an Iranian dress exhibition."

Iranian sociologist Abbas Razavi says Zamani's work is more about psychology than fashion. "She is trying to create harmony between people's wants and needs," he says. "In this society, where we face religious dogma, the young want something new and different to show that they are young. Mrs. Zamani is trying to make these two worlds understand each other. I think that is something very beautiful and necessary in this society."

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