The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is very true when applied to this series of images taken from old Iranian fashion magazines. The images show that before the Cultural Revolution, Iranian women were every bit as fashionable as any that lived in the West, and they enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom to select their clothing and makeup.
Throughout history, Iranian women’s fashion has followed the social mores of the age, as is common in any culture. The tempestuous politics of this Middle Eastern country is shown in the dress and makeup worn by women through the ages.
Early in the 1900s, women wore conservative clothing, with the white hijab being very much in favor. Makeup was non-existent, and the mono-brow was considered a beauty statement. The women’s rights movement had not come to the fore; women were subservient to men and had few rights.
Women believed that not wearing a veil marked them as poor, rural, or nomadic; they considered it an insult to have the veil removed.
By 1910, the women’s rights movement was founded and women began to agitate for self-determination, and this is reflected in the dress of the age. By the start of the 1920s women still wore the hijab but it was now colorful, hair was more exposed with finger waves in view, and eyebrows were being plucked into the more fashionable curve.
In the 1930s, Reza Shah came to power and decided that he would “modernize” Iran; one of his decrees was that all veils would be banned immediately. He believed that the veil inhibited women. This should have been a vast step forward, and it would have been if women had agitated for this decree, but it humiliated and angered many Iranian women.
Early in the 1940s Reza Shah had abdicated and the laws against wearing the veil had been removed, but a new phenomenon appeared – veils were now viewed as an indicator of low-class status or a backward outlook, and it was thought to be a significant hindrance to women both socially and in the workplace.
The fashionable Iranian woman looked no different from her Western counterpart, with hair in soft curls and makeup worn all over the face. In spite of the view that the veil marked you as backward, many Iranian women wore it with pride.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a dichotomy appeared in Iranian women’s fashion. The wealthy upper classes reflected Western influence while many middle-class women still favored wearing the veil. Beehive hairstyles and heavy makeup, including eyeliner, were prominent. Women gained many other freedoms in Iran – the first woman appointed to the cabinet was Farrokhroo Parsa in the post of Minister of Education.
During the 1970s women were granted rights such as equality in marriage and divorce. Fashion, hair, and makeup reflected the modern woman of the world. All this was to come to an end at the start of the 1980s with the Islamic Cultural Revolution. Women’s rights collapsed, and strict dress laws were reintroduced. Wearing of the plain black hijab was enforced, and Parsa was executed by firing squad.
Ten years later, dress laws have relaxed a little. Though the hijab is still being worn, color has returned, and the hairline is again seen. Women’s rights are still in abeyance, but women are hopeful that things will improve.
At the end of the first decade of the new millennium, the Green Revolution rose in Iran after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The insurrection was put down, with thousands being arrested; women had been a large part of the driving force behind the revolution. Women were hopeful that the centuries-old social order, based on patriarchy, would disintegrate and allow women more freedom and more right to determine their futures.
By 2010, some progress had been made, and women were again wearing a simple headscarf instead of the restrictive hijab. Discrimination is still rife in areas of marriage (a male guardian must approve the marriage), divorce, and the custody of children. Honor killings and child marriage still occur.
When one looks at the photographs from the fashion layout from the 1970s, it is like night and day between what was being worn at the beginning of the 20th century and what was considered stylish in the 1970s. Women and their right to wear what they want have been ruthlessly crushed, and it will be a long time before Iranian women achieve the level of freedom they enjoyed in the 1970s.