August 29, 2013

Touring Iran: What’s a woman to wear?

Iran women uncornered market
American women visiting Iran. Photo by

Used to traveling to wild places with Jack—where river crossings, jungle treks, temple climbing and cave crawling are the norm—my idea of travel fashion generally focueses on sturdy shoes, sun-blocking shirts, and my favorite jungle pants.

But Iran is different. Women must follow hijab—not just a scarf but a modest way of dressing that mandates pants or a long skirt topped by a loose-fitting, long-sleeved tunic or coat with a high neck and a body that hangs at least to mid-thigh.

If I were traveling in cool weather, it would be a snap—just throw on a short raincoat and scarf and go. But it will still be hot when we travel to Iran this fall. Finding the requisite length in a long-sleeved but cool material would take some planning, so I started early.

First I learned the basics: Despite the restrictions, Iranian women are stylish. Tunics and scarves don’t need to be dark  Colors and light fabrics are OK.  Makeup and jewelry are OK.  Open sandals without socks are OK, but with the caveat: when visiting mosques, many will require footies or socks.

My own closet was the first stop. There were quite a few tunics there—but all either had  three-quarter-length sleeves or were about four inches too short.

pintuck tunic pink
Pintuck tunic from Serengeti.

But I find did find one: a cotton, long-sleeved tunic from Serengeti catalog. In the photo at right, the sleeves are rolled up but, when worn down they come to the wrist. I ordered two more of these in different colors.

Safari coatdress
Safari coatdress from Magellan

I also had a lightweight coatdress coat from Magellen Catalog (left). It will be too hot for most day-time excursions but can double for dinner in a hotel or serve as a wrap in case of foul weather.

Next I hit some of my usual  catalogs—frustrating since most offerings couldn’t meet the long-sleeve, long-length requirement. But I did find one real hit—a very lightweight cotton “big shirt” from Soft Surroundigs.

Striped tunic from Soft Surroundings
Striped tunic from Soft Surroundings

In the photo, it doesn’t look like it would meet the code, but buttoned up to the neck, with with sleeves rolled down and a camisole underneath, it seems like a great shirt for touring dusty ruins in the heat.

I ordered two of these. Then found a US-based Islamic clothing website, Shukr Online,  that features some natural-fiber tunics. I ordered a couple of them (below).

Cotton tunic from Shukr
Cotton tunic from Shukr
Linen tunic from Shukr
Linen tunic from Shukr





The scarf is a key part of the dress code: it must always be worn when a woman is in public: outside, inside, on the bus, in  restaurants, anywhere outside our hotel room.  The scarves can be any shape: big scarves worn like shawls, square scarves tied under the chin, or oblong with the ends throw over the shoulders. A bit of hair, like bangs, showing in front is OK, I’ve been told, except for perhaps  a few really conservative mosques where I’ll need a hairband to tamp the bangs down to keep them out of sight.

Women’s scarves  must be kept in place at all times. I had a tip from a friend to avoid silk or polyester  because they slide off. For my trip,  they’d be too hot, anyway. Experimenting, I noticed that earrings aren’t visible under the scarf, so that’s one less thing to worry about! And, I can scratch fussing with my hair off the list, too.

Where  scarves are concerned, I like the oblong look better. I found that a standard size of 15 or 16 inches by 72  inches seems to work well—covers the hair  and leaves tailspink_paisley scarf long enough to throw over the shoulder and stay in place.  Shopping for scarves was fun. My favorite website is Anokhi USA, which has dozens of lightweight cotton carves in pretty colors and prints.

I took one of my new scarves for a test run the other day when I wore it out shopping and home on the train. I felt a bit silly, but  found that it stayed in place quite well. Still, I’m packing a few bobby pins to carry in my purse just in case.

The Lonely Planet guidebook for Iran pulls no punches: For those of us not used to covering up quite so much, it sandalwood fanwill be an adjustment and—with temperatures likely to be in the eighties—it’ll be hot. That’s why I’m packing one of my favorite hot-weather accessories: a sandalwood hand fan. I’ve purchased these all over the world, and now find that they’re available from I’ve ordered a couple of spares!

Here’s more advice from women who’ve been to Iran recently:

Traveling to Iran as Americans: All You Need to Know

Journeywoman: What should I wear?

Lonely Planet Forum: Dress Code in Iran

Anokhi USA_ All Scarves

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Anne Sigmon

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