What to wear in Iran?
Packing the right suitcase is a common concern for women travellers to Iran. Lackness of an official written directory makes it further complicating. To explain in one sentence, idea is to cover your hair and not to expose any bare skin other than hands and face. Other than that, Iranian officials leave it to your common sense and personal interpretation as long as your interpretation does not clash with theirs! Unless otherwise indicated, information in this article is for women travellers.
Before reading further, learn the jargon:
Hijab is a scarf, generally rectangle or oblong, sometimes square.
Chador is the overall wear, it can be any color. Most common color is black. Chador available to borrow at religious sites look like a flat bed sheet, both in means on size, shape, colors and design. You put it on your head and tie under your chin.
Manteaux is a jacket worn over tight fitting clothes to hide the figure. A manteaux can be a mid thigh length, or knee long, or can be longer to cover all leg including ankles… It can look like a trench coat or a tunic or a coat, what matters is if it covers the figure or not. Or, in simple words, manteaux is to cover your “bum” if your shirt / blouse doesn’t.
Arm Sleeve / Armlet looks like a long glove without the hands! It is not attached to a shirt or a blouse. If your shirt is short sleeved, you wear the arm sleeve/armlet to cover your arms. So arm sleeve / armlet turns a short sleeve shirt to a pseudo long sleeve shirt.
FYI, 3/4 th sleeves are ok, if shorter than that you should wear an arm sleeve/armlet.
Arm sleeve / armlet is useful in summer months. A skin color one would match with every color.
Neck Cover is a wide collar worn under the shirt to cover the bare neck and décolleté, otherwise you don’t one. This one is also a handy accessory to have in warmer months, if you will only buy one, get a skin color.
Generally speaking, sleeves should be long enough to cover arm in full length, trousers or skirts should be ankle length, hijab (scarf / shawl for hair covering) must cover all your hair. Women of different cities and social classes interpret this differently. While some cities are very conservative, there are others which are quite liberal, including the clergy. Women of upper socio-economic classes almost always are more liberal, push boundaries, use eye catching colors and accessories. Women of lower middle and lower classes cover more, and use more of darker and earth colors.
Striking make up, fake eye lashes, nose jobs, fancy manicures are common in bigger cities, especially in Tehran’s mid and uptowns. These are expressions of the social class.
In Tehran, seeing young women wearing ultra tight tan color leggings with a tunic running mid-calf length is not uncommon while a surprise for the awkwardly wrapped up international female visitor trying to follow the law.
Chador, or the overall cover is common only in more conservative cities and certain religious locations. However, I must add that there are also women who use the it for the practical reason, so they don’t need to worry about putting on the right street attire, they may just be heading to a friends home for a cup of tea with California fashion hidden underneath! It is at individual’s own choice to opt for a chador or to follow a more liberal way of decently covering. While visiting Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Yazd and Abyaneh, during 10 days in Iran, I had to wear the chador only twice, while visiting the Shah Cherag Mosque in Shiraz and the Mausoleum of Imam Khomeyni in Tehran. So that is how rare a visitor needs to wear an overall cover. When it is demanded that you wear the chador, it is also available to borrow.
Iranian men are decent, they hardly look at women in a way that would make you uncomfortable. On the contrary, most of my viewers were other women. They loved to examine what I wear, how I carry my body, my expressions. So, to clear the curiosity about the question if anybody would look at you or not, my answer is yes, women will be looking at you!
Below is my personal and coarse categorization of who wears what. This is no means a social class categorization, but sharing of personal experience and observation.
Upper middle and upper classes: Well groomed, glitzy, eye catching, fashionable, striking colors and styles. Hair is hardly covered all the way, fringes of hair always exposed, scarf looks like as if it is ready to slip. Wearing a tight belt around the waist over the manteaux is fashionable. This changes and their attire becomes more subtle if they are working for government, if they are a political figure or if they belong to a prominent political family.
More educated and artists (masters, PhD, or above): More sophisticated and stylish in a characteristic way rather than a fashionable way. Classy, casual and dynamic. Not much of plastic surgery, no excessive make up.
Middle and lower middle class: Less nose jobs, modest eyeliner and mascara if there is any make up, sometimes lipstick. More of earth colors, while one thing of their attire may have a catchy color, this can be the scarf, or the shirt inside the manteaux. The fringes of the hair maybe exposed, scarf / hijab does not look like that it is about to slip off.
Lower class, less educated: If not wearing the overall covering chador, only skin parts exposed are face and hands. Darker colors, lots of black and grey. Hardly any make up. Chador is more common.
- Women drivers are concerned about premature aging of their hands due to sun exposure, most of the time they wear gloves.
- Long cardigans or tunics are very handy, pack one or two. If you like the style, you can also get a manteaux.
- If your clothes aren’t tight fitting, you don’t need to wear a manteaux or a tun.
- ic. So layers are not necessary as long as your “bum” is covered.
- Tight fitting jeans and pants are ok, no need to wear cargo pants or slouchy stuff. Just go with what you like. If you opt to wear tight fitting clothes, use a tunic or a manteaux. Your shirts/blouses must be long enough to cover hips, if not wear a manteaux or a cardigan or a tunic that would do the job.
- International travellers are tolerated to little freedoms, such as a ¾ sleeve, 7/8 trousers or exposed ankles. One day in Tehran, I wore a short sleeve shirt and forgot to wear my pseudo sleeves on my arms. Before leaving the hotel for the day, I had asked my guide if my attire was proper. He said I was fine. My guide was an open minded liberal Iranian man and my arms did not attract his attention! But, when I noticed women looking at me, I realized what I forgot. I had a conversation with one, she told me that if I was not a tourist but a local, I would have been warned.
- It is dusty, choose colors that will be easier for you to handle.
- March, April, early May, October, November, December are comfortable months to travel. Weather is ideal for sight seeing, and wearing long sleeves or a hijab don’t feel hot or uncomfortable.
- January and February may be colder, but those are the months you would particularly enjoy having a hijab, hat, long sleeves and a coat!
- Summer (June, July, August) and September can be very hot. If you will travel in any of these months, pay particular attention to wearing natural fabrics like cotton and linen. Stay clear away from synthetic smart travel clothes advertised with words as “cool, moisture wicking, ultra lite”. Nothing can replace the comfort and coolness of natural/pure cotton or linen. Even wool is better than synthetic, it is a good insulator. I bet you have all seen movies in which desert bedouins wear wool overall outfits and turbans, but not Indiana Jones’ smart travel clothes! It is for a reason.
- Nail polish is ok. Fancy nail polish and manicure is also ok.
- In summer, sandals with bare foot is ok. Nail polish on toe nails is ok.
- Burqa and turban are not Iranian, these are very very rare to spot, though not against the law.
- Skirts and dresses are not as common most women prefer pants of various styles. But, I find skirt easier when using an oriental toilett (almost all toilets other than in hotels and in some restaurants). You just pull it up and don’t worry about sweeping the wet floors with it. However, when you wear trousers, you work hard that they don’t fall on your ankles and mop the floor. If you will pack skirts, make sure you also pack a stretch sports tights or opaque color pantyhose. These would be to wear under your skirt, in case the skirt blows with wind or as you walk, you make sure not to expose bare skin.
See related photos and video below. At the very bottom, you can see links to websites that specialize in “Islamic wear”.
Useful Web Sites:
Moda Nisa is a Turkish based Islamic Wear department store. This particular link will take you to page where arm sleeves/armlets and neck covers are displayed:
With Love Leena is the blog of a Muslim American from Texas, USA. She gives tips about how to follow an Islamic fashion, but still look fresh and trendy:
Voile Chic based in Toront specializes in chic and instant/pinless hijabs. They ship to USA: