Iran's conservative MPs turn to fashion design

Tehran, Iran - Iran's parliament has launched a new initiative to promote Iranian and Islamic fashion, with MPs driven by the fear of a "cultural invasion" and inspired by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Young people's clothing does not reflect their Islamic and Iranian identity. It is an expression of foreign views," explained Laleh Eftekhari, one of the 12 female MPs in the 290-seat conservative-controlled assembly.

"Even if someone wants different outfits there is nothing on offer," she complained, explaining the reasoning behind the new bill approved by Majlis members on Sunday.

Every post-pubescent female in Iran, regardless of her nationality or religion, is obliged to observe the Islamic dress code and cover her shape and hair whenever outside the home -- preferably in black.

Although most Iranian women do abide by the rules, in many cities headscarves have been slipping, trouser hems rising and coats tightening. Ayatollah Khamenei voiced alarm over this state of affairs two years ago.

"We have many good fashion designers whose expertise is not being used or their creations are not affordable. We would like to support them and help them display and sell their products," Eftekhari said.

Once rubber-stamped by the Guardians Council political watchdog, the law would oblige the government to sponsor and promote fashion inspired by traditional Iranian patterns and encourage people to avoid "incompatible" foreign fashions.

For example, state television would need to play its part by making presenters and actors wear suitable clothes.

"We are not going to impose anything on people. We are against a homogenized look," insisted Fatemeh Alia, another female MP and member of the parliament's cultural commission.

"Our aim is to offer clothes that incorporate modesty, beauty and diversity and at the same time display cultural independence."

But not everyone is taken in by the idea, with some moderates voicing concern over a new "big brother" approach in a country where individual freedoms are already tightly controlled.

"If we are to make a law about clothing, we should make laws about what people eat," complained one reformist MP, Ismail Gerami-Moghadam.

In the modern metropolis of Tehran, many women were also on the defensive.

"They sugar-coat it at first, but they could move on to make everyone wear a certain outfit," said Manijeh Afzali, a 47-year-old resident of the city spotted while out shopping for clothes.

Her 20-year-old daughter was equally cynical: "I'm not sure about the patterns they are going to put out. They will probably be tacky and like villagers' clothes," she said.

The MPs have not yet revealed pictures of what they regard as "correct" clothes, but they mention Iran's traditional and regional costumes as an appropriate inspiration.

Under the new law, the ministries of industry and commerce would also be working hand in hand with the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance to hold exhibitions.

But according to Parvaneh Hosseinpour, a clothing store assistant, the shift towards traditional costumes could bring some welcome colour into the sea of black usually seen across the Islamic republic.

"Folk costumes come in beautiful bright colours, but they are not very comfortable. If the designers manage to incorporate those nice colours into practical outfits, we'll probably get rid of this ever-present dreary black," she told AFP.