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Society & Culture

The Islamic Catwalk

April 4, 2014
Shima Shahrabi
6 min read
The Islamic Catwalk
The Islamic Catwalk

The Islamic Catwalk

She wears a long, navy blue gown with gold trim. Her shawl is wrapped around her in a stylish manner. She has a good figure and appears tall – that is, if one ignores the 10-centimeter heels.

The model, Niloofar P, appeared on the catwalk at this year’s Fashion and Couture Show in Tehran, which took place in March.

Twenty-six years old, Niloofar started modeling a few years ago, mainly at shows hosted in private homes. “The quality of the dresses are higher and they pay me well,” she says.

She met fashion designer Mahla Zamani at a party. “She liked me and suggested I wear her designs for a photo shoot. I liked the job and we did a few live shows. I even appeared on stage in the ‘Chastity and Veil’ show, which had a women-only audience.”

Among those exhibiting at this year’s fashion show were modeling agencies and dress designers. “We were very well received,” says Sharif Razavi, the director of the Behpoushi (or “Dressing Well”) agency. “Many young people eager to learn Islamic modeling have registered with us.”


License To Model?

Three days prior to the show, Hamid Ghobadi, secretary of the Working Group for Bringing Order to Fashion and Clothing at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, spoke of plans to issue accreditation cards to models. He announced that models who conformed to Islamic rules and regulations would be registered on a modeling database. “From now on, models approved by the working group will receive a license,” he said.

The Behpoushi Institute offers Islamic-Iranian modeling workshops, as do other fashion agencies. The duration of the course is “about 200 hours”, Razavi told IranWire, and includes lessons on “body language, fashion theory, professional ethics and readiness for live shows and photo shoots”.

When talking about the fashion shows Behpoushi puts on, Razavi replaces the term “model” with “well-dresser”, particularly when he’s making a distinction between Islamic and un-Islamic fashion models. “The difference between well-dressers and other models are their moral values,” he explains. “Well-dressers represent Islamic fashion, not just any fashion.”

What exactly is Islamic fashion? Razavi says Behpoushi and Islamic fashion reject the types of behavior seen at Western fashion shows, including the way  female models walk and look out into the audience. “The well-dresser walks straight without superfluous movements and stares ahead,” he says. “We even try to muffle the sound of the models’ steps,” he adds, making a link between this practice and Islamic values.

Razavi believes that a Muslim woman can observe Islamic dress code and still wear high-fashion clothing and bright colors. “Unfortunately,” he observes, “people think they must dress in dark colors to comply with Islamic standards, even though we have stories about how even the Prophet wore yellow shoes.”

Not so long ago, the head of the Working Group for Bringing Order to Fashion and Clothing announced that Islamic models were forbidden from no less than ten cosmetic procedures, including collagen injections.

Models with natural beauty are sought out all over the world, Razavi says. This is the main criteria Behpoushi uses when choosing models. “We prefer not to accept those who have had extravagant nose jobs because it makes their faces look artificial. The more innocent and untarnished a face looks, the more Islamic it is.”

I consider Niloofar’s appearance. It looks as if she has had a nose job. “With all the talk about forbidding cosmetic surgery,” I ask her, “Do you think you will get your license?”

“Where I work, they don’t ask for a license,” she replies, laughing. There are so many people –  both women and men –  who have had nose jobs, she adds. These guidelines mean the ministry is “only making it more difficult” for itself.

The Violet Modeling Agency, which had a stand at the Fashion and Couture Show too, has also received considerable attention. Its brochure invites those interested in modeling and dress and jewelry design to work with the agency. Their website offers a three-step process for applying: describe your appearance; specify what you are good at; post a picture.

According to the Violet Agency’s director, Farid Navid, “international standards for male models on the catwalk [stipulate] a height of at least 185 centimeters and a weight of at least 75 kilograms”. Female models must be at least 175 centimeters tall and weigh between 60 and 65 kilograms. Acceptable sizes range from between 36 and 40. “For photo models, however”, he says, “the standards are a little different because the beauty of the face has priority. In Iran, of course, the standards are somewhat different.”


Facebook Models Are Hot

It’s possible that Islamic Republic officials have just discovered modeling, but young people in Iran have been following fashion for years. Many aspiring Iranian models post photographs on Facebook, hoping to gain an audience and maybe even some work. 

A young woman called Pegah has posted photographs of herself in party dresses, ethnic costumes and even a wedding gown. “I love photographs,” she confesses. “There was a photography studio near our house and whenever I bought a new dress, I would touch my hair up a bit and go to the studio to have my picture taken in a variety of poses. The owner once asked me if she could use some of the photos in the studio’s album and I gave my permission. A little later she called and told me that a manteau designer liked them and wanted me to do a photo shoot wearing her gowns.”

Pegah accepted. Shortly after, the designer invited her to take part in a catwalk show. “The first time, I was very stressed,” she says. “For two days before the show, I watched only fashion channels and tried to imitate the models.”

She has received no training in Iran. “I love the job,” she says, “so I went to Turkey for two months and took a modeling course.”  Among the things she learned was a series of exercises recommended for models. ”I still do the exercises,” she says, “and my self-confidence has improved.”

Pegah currently earns about $160 for each catwalk show she does, which requires between eight and 10 hours’ work. “When I started, I often worked for free,” she says. Many models starting out in Iran work for little or no money, she adds.  

“Pay for well-dressers depends on experience,” says the director of Behpoushi Institute. It ranges from around $30 to close to $400 for a catwalk show.

When I ask Pegah about the incoming rules for Islamic modeling, she laughs. “So they want to ruin our business?”

“How do they want to make fashion Islamic?” she asks. “For example, all over the world shorter dresses are in fashion. They [the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Working Group for Bringing Order to Fashion and Clothing] want models to wear long dresses. I don’t think people will connect with Islamic fashion. Everybody has satellite TV. At the moment, most people buy from private shows. The dresses come from Turkey, Europe or America. And they are the latest fashions.”


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