It’s the palette that takes me back. The lapis and malachite on Marisa Berenson. The sheer emerald scarf draped around Lauren Hutton’s organza dress.
The dusty pink of a shiraz rosé; a turquoise dome blooming out of dun brick. A mere two years after Vogue’s 1969 Henry Clarke portfolio, shot in Iran, “Fashion in the Persian-Blue Gardens of the Sun,” my mother and I were in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, buying fabric for my fifth birthday present: an Iranian-style veil, the chador. I remember the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, the crowded stalls, the bolts of fabric stacked floor-to-ceiling. Back then, before the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and ’79, chadors weren’t simply the black uniform of the Ayatollah’s followers, but were riotously various, their shades ranging from dove gray to burnt orange. I chose a meter of psychedelic paisley, a dizzying mix of blue-green peacock swirls. We took it to a tailor, who sewed it into a proper chador, with seams that made the cloth swing, and gave it a weight so it hung straight down when you held it together in your teeth, as Iranian women did when their arms were lumbered with bags or children. I loved it so much that I slept in it that night, a warm and slightly cloying sensation, like the enveloping hug of a beloved great-aunt.
I was just 4 when my family moved from St. Louis to Tehran—part of a wave of Americans who came to live in the country in the early 1970s. My father had a Fulbright to teach law at the University of Tehran, while my mother, a literature professor, found a job at Pars College teaching Shakespeare to Iranian undergraduates. That year the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, threw what the Ayatollah Khomeini called “the devil’s festival”: a party held in air-conditioned tents at Persepolis, so grand that a florist from Versailles coaxed a rose garden from a scorpion-infested desert, guests drank 1945 Château Lafite Rothschild, and the Emperor of Ethiopia’s dog wore a diamond-studded collar.
Along with many Iranians, my parents disapproved of the Shah’s $200 million party, and his go-go Westernization drive. Even as privileged foreigners, they couldn’t ignore signs of something rotten in the Shah’s state. There were rumors that the head of the Shah’s secret police was a student in my father’s criminal justice class. When my mother taught King Lear, her students were all but silent in discussions about a play about an old and weak monarch.
I was oblivious to all of it. Not speaking a word of Farsi and near deaf to the nuances of Iranian gestures, I was dazzled instead by surfaces: the smooth cool of turquoise tiles, the blackened crust of hot naan fresh from the bakery, and, most of all, by what Iranian women wore. In St. Louis, I’d favored smocked dresses from Saks and kilts from Harrods—hand-me-downs from our wealthy cousins in Chicago. In Tehran, I discovered the drama of drapes and veils, of sequined slippers from Damascus, and skirts so long they dragged in the dust. Real women, I remember informing my mother, either dressed like princesses or nomad women, or else they wore chadors.
So my chador was a kind of costume. It was also a necessity since my parents wanted to sightsee in Qom, the Shia center of religious learning. “A hassle,” my mother grumbled as she put hers on. I loved the hassle, and ostentatiously arranged and rearranged mine, feeling both dainty and dramatic, as though the air around me was charged with something nameless but potent.
I couldn’t have known, of course, about the politics weighing down the veil. In hindsight, the gulf between the chador of ordinary Iranian women and the imported Western chic worn by the ruling classes hinted at the deep divisions that would lead to the revolution. I failed to notice that the women who lived in our prosperous North Tehran neighborhood never wore chadors; only their maids did. My favorite game with my best friend Tara was “Iranian Ladies.” She was half-Iranian, the daughter of a Tehrani architect who had fallen in love with Tara’s mother when they were both students at Berkeley. Together, Tara and I would crouch against a wall in her garden, squint into the sun, and tug our chadors tight around us, as we’d seen village women do.
Meanwhile, our American mothers, with their miniskirts and uncovered hair, wanted to look like Lauren Hutton and Marisa Berenson. My mother wore heavy silver jewelry and hand-blocked cottons. Tara’s mother, Karen, with her auburn curls, straight white teeth, and dancing copper eyes, was as beautiful as the models in my mother’s issues of Vogue. But I didn’t see it. Without a chador or a long skirt, she lacked power and mystery.
When we left Tehran and drove through the countryside, we’d see Qashqai nomad women tending their flocks or setting up tents. They didn’t wear chadors, but rather pillbox hats and gold-threaded skirts and bright colors. Tara and I demanded that our mothers sew us princess dresses from the fabric they wore. My Christmas gift that year was a doll of a Qashqai nomad. She was hard plastic and her tinsel scratched my skin, but she, like the chador, slept in my bed with me.
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Snow White came to the Ice Palace cinema, and we begged our mothers to take us. Afterward, we traded Iranian Ladies for endless games of Snow White. We both vied for the lead role, which required you to stand on the bed, bite an apple, and then collapse. If you fell just right, your hair would spread across the pillow, adding to the effect of lush helplessness.
Our other heroine was the Shah’s wife, Empress Farah. Her imperious perfection appeared in official portraits, on display on the walls of every shop, bank, and office. She was more like a movie star than a leader’s wife. At our local bakery, she appeared as the royal consort, in a blue sash and a diamond tiara. At the bank, she sat stiffly in a couture suit at the edge of a gilt chair, surrounded by her navy-blazered sons and a daughter in a wide, pink headband. My favorite picture of her was taken at the coronation, where she was dressed in an ermine robe and had a crown bigger than any I’d seen in any of my fairy-tale books.
As a young woman, Farah had studied architecture in Paris, where she was introduced to the Shah at a tea at the Iranian embassy. Within months, the two were married. She wore Yves Saint Laurent and a 2-kilo Harry Winston tiara at the wedding and commemorated the day by setting 150 caged nightingales free.
The regime promoted Farah as the perfect woman, and I bought it, utterly. It was only queens like her and girls like Tara and me who had the time and the dress sense to tug ermine robes across rugs to be crowned. What a heavy, delicious burden, to uphold the drama of being a woman, to act out the rites of feminine silence, submission, and perfection!
Our mothers, fresh from reading Betty Friedan, didn’t want parts in such passion plays. Soon enough, I didn’t either. When our year in Iran was over and we were back in St. Louis, I packed my chador away, swapped my dresses for flares, and insisted on playing soccer with the boys.
Womanhood, I’d soon learn, was less about innocence than experience, less about keeping yourself precious or separate, and more about joining in with everyone else. By the time I was 10 and my parents and I were watching thousands of chador-clad women protesting the Shah’s regime on TV, I knew that the chador wasn’t just a bit of cloth, but a political statement. Two years later when the Shah and his Empress were toppled by revolutionaries, I learned there was no such thing as a fairy-tale princess. In the real world, crowns had to be earned.
By CARLA POWER