Women's dress in the Muslim world is endlessly debated and written about. But when it comes to what the men are wearing, we hear relatively little. And yet here in Iran it is clear to see that quitelours, the yellow slippers and silver rings with large agate stones, add up in many cases to nothing short of elegance.
If there is one major point of agreement among clerics, it lies in the importance Islam attaches -- thanks to the many stories about how well the Prophet Mohammad dressed, and his love of perfumes -- to looking and smelling good. Making an effort to be well turned out is not just allowed by Islam, it is positively encouraged.
In the middle-class salons of Tehran these days, one of the lighter topics of conversation is Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's wardrobe. He is seen as very elegant; in fact, a bit of a dandy. Every new outfit he dons as the seasons change unleashes a fresh round of comment about the colors, textures and shapes of the robes, high-collared shirts and mantles that he wears. After Khatami appeared on TV during the summer in an elegant cream-
colored robe, other prominent members of the government followed suit.
For anyone who wants to learn more about Iranian clerical fashion, the place to visit is Qom. Besides its claim to fame as the spiritual heart of the Iranian revolution -- Ayatollah Khomeini chose this traditionally religious city as his residence after returning to Iran in 1979 following the fall of the shah -- it also boasts the best tailors to the Muslim clergy in the country, and possibly in all the Middle East.
On a childhood trip to the city, I remember thinking that the clerics in their flowing robes and layered outfits were so much more elegant than the women hidden in black veils -- the "black crows" as some Iranians still call them. In my pre-feminist, five-year-old mind, I wanted women to be the elegant ones, showing off their clothes.
Center of Learning
Over the past 25 years the Islamic government has successfully promoted Qom as a center of Shiite Muslim learning to rival Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq. Students and mullahs from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf, Pakistan and Afghanistan frequent its seminaries. Pilgrims from the Shiite diaspora in Africa, the US and Europe visit the shrine.
As a result, Qom now boasts more foreign residents and tourists than Tehran. Pizzerias have sprung up all over the city, and restaurants have added Arab dishes to their fare. Hotels, hostels, travel agents and souvenir shops cater to the hordes of pilgrims, religious
tourists and seminarians from overseas. You can also check your e-mail at the many "coffee net" places around town -- although none of them actually serves
Qom has changed in other ways, too. Everyone in Tehran told me that in Qom I should wear the full female get-up, including the all-covering black chador. I was worried that I was not wearing socks and that my fingernails betrayed bits of nail polish I had not had a chance to wipe off. In the event I did not have to wear the chador at all -- a scarf was enough -- and the Qomis seemed too busy to worry about bare toes or the state of my nails.
After getting directions from a mullah crossing the street, I headed towards a "passage" -- pronounced in the French way -- that was one of several shopping arcades made up almost entirely of tailors' workshops specializing in clerical clothes.