Iranian women visit an exhibition depicting Islamic Dress Code during an exhibition in Tehran last August. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

In the Islamic republic of Iran, the law requires women to cover their hair and bodies in public. But how to do so remains up to them, and the result is persistent confusion in the streets.

Though leading Shiite Muslim clerics advise women to wear chadors — the traditional head-to-toe cloak, usually black — Iran’s urban fashionistas increasingly prefer tight-fitting coats and scant head scarves.

Now, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is stepping into the dispute. He wants to settle it by promoting government-approved apparel for women, garments intended to introduce an array of clothes that are “Islamic and beautiful” at the same time.

Hard-liners are not amused. They say that the new designs encourage “Western values.” But at a recent government-sponsored fashion show, young women and their mothers gazed approvingly at the plastic mannequins showcasing the new coats and scarves.

Shoukoufeh Arabpour, 23, coveted a velvet blue “manteau,” as women’s coats are called here, borrowing from the French word. The design was called “peacock” and clearly marked a world of difference from the black chador that Arabpour had wrapped around herself.

Two Iranian women view dressed mannequins at a women's dress showorganized by the government in November. Under Iran's strict Islamic regulations, women should cover themselves head to toe, a controversial point since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Women are allowed to show their faces. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

“I adore it,” said Arabpour, a student of fashion design. Around her, other women took photos of the 110 designs, which were entered in a competition for the best Islamic dress.

Followed by television cameras, a team of judges — mostly men — circled the halls, grading the coats on their functionality, design and “Islamic-ness.”

Arabpour wasn’t interested in the contest, explaining that if it were up to her, she would be wearing something like the peacock coat instead of the chador, which covers everything except her face.

“I wear that because my family wants me to,” Arabpour said. “Unfortunately, compared to other nations, we face restrictions in the choice of our clothes.”

Those restrictions are heartily supported by many hard-liners, who say that the “culture” of covering up protects women and prevents them from becoming sex objects. They often denounce Western advertising as abusing women’s bodies to sell products.

But with young adults making up the majority of the population — nearly 70 percent of Iran’s more than 72 million people are younger than 35 — religious conservatives have been waging an uphill battle to prevent young urban women from dressing the way they want, even within the framework of the laws that mandate coats and scarves.

Change and resistance

With demographics fueling rapid changes in Iranian society, many women nowadays — even conservative ones — watch Western video clips, post their thoughts on Facebook and travel to the beaches of Turkey and Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, on holidays.

On any given day, women in the streets of Tehran can be seen wearing combinations of wide-open coats, heavy makeup and towering platinum blond hairdos held in place by large hair clips and minimally covered by brightly colored scarves. Technically, they are not violating the dress code, but they can still be arrested.

The hard-liners’ answer to the changes has been an effort to enforce the dress code even more strictly. Besides an ongoing campaign by Iran’s morality police, who harangue and sometimes arrest women dressed in clothing deemed indecent, 70 fashion designers were rounded up in November, and more than 400 shops selling “improper” dresses were closed.

“The hard-liners’ problem is that people have grown accustomed to new and different ways of dressing,” said Asal, 27, a graphic designer who withheld her full name for fear of reprisals. Changes in interpreting the dress code are taking place step by step, she said, and when society accepts them, there is no turning back.

“First, we were not allowed to wear boots, but now many women wear them,” Asal said. “They said that we always had to close our coats, but now we keep them unbuttoned. These are big changes in our traditional society.”

Ahmadinejad, who seeks to position himself as a champion of civil rights in an attempt to lure middle-class votes for his supporters in parliamentary elections in March, has come under fire from clerics for refusing to publicly back the dress-code enforcement.

Middle-of-the-road solution

To many of those attending the government exhibition, the middle road between the chador and some of the Lady Gaga-like creations that some women make of their obligatory coats and scarves seemed to offer a solution to their fashion dilemmas.

“Oh lord, isn’t this beautiful?” exclaimed Zahra Ranjbar, an expert on Islamic clothing, as she walked passed a mannequin showcasing a brown coat cut well above the knee. Ranjbar was hired by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the organizer of the fashion show, to advise young women on proper dresses. She wore a chador herself, but “only because I was told to by the ministry,” she admitted.

Ranjbar said more variations of Islamic dresses are needed to keep women interested in covering up. She fully supports “regulations” to clarify what can be worn and what cannot, she said, arguing that such clarity helps not only women, but also the police who enforce the dress code.

“We want to put bar codes on officially approved dresses and provide those wearing them with written permissions in order to prevent them from being arrested,” Ranjbar said. “We are doing this for the people, in order to protect them.”

But several fashion designers who sell dresses from their homes derided that idea, saying it would add even more permission slips to the already overprotected lives of Iranian women. Besides, they said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“Again we will face a situation in which a small group will decide for all women what is allowed and what not,” said Kiana, 26, who makes manteaus costing up to $300 apiece and did not want to be identified by her full name.

Hard-liners, for their part, took a dim view of the exhibition.

“Instead of presenting short coats for women, the officials organizing the Islamic fashion show should have presented chadors,” the conservative Web site Mashregh News complained. “The chador is the only possible Islamic dress.”

For one visitor, the fight over clothes was not really important.

“Look at me,” said chador-clad Somaye Ghadiri, who also sported Adidas shoes and a Chanel bag. “This is my choice,” she said of her dress and accessories. “Others should be able to make their own decisions.”