The shah of Iran had a lasting influence on my mother's fashion sense. Political discussions had faded from our dinnertime conversations by the mid-'80s, and by then no one would have confessed their royalist sympathies outright, but the Iranian royal family lingered in our American closets for years, folded in as deep as my family's nostalgia and longing for home.
You could, for example, see the shah's influence in the houndstooth suit in which my mother dressed me for the first day of second grade. He was there, lurking in the starched primness of my collar and the sharp pleats of my dainty skirt. I think I was meant to look like an English aristocrat from the first part of 20th century, which I imagine was the look the Iranian royal family aspired to in countless photographs staged at this villa or that through the '60s and '70s.
You can, regrettably, still see the shah's influence should you come to my house and flip through family albums from the '80s. Several times a year on my mother's injunction, we would head for the local Sears Portrait Studio for a sitting. My mother would wear an enormous feathered hat balanced at a jaunty angle, and my father would draw himself up stiffly in some suit retired from a wedding long past. And I invariably would find myself engulfed in swaths of pink taffeta, my royal costume plucked from the rack of discounted prom dresses at Macy's.
I like to think I have come a long way from all that, but the other day I was at a relative's house in Pleasanton and found myself gasping at the sight of a black lace G-string peeking out from a pair of low-rise jeans. Of course, I see this sort of thing all the time. Who can avoid that particular look nowadays?
But this was a 12-year-old Iranian girl at a family gathering.
She turned around, flashing me with the none-too-subtle pun emblazoned on her tank top: HOT FCUK. I mean "emblazoned" literally here--the words stretching across her chest emerged from a riot of flames.
I backed away so suddenly that I nearly knocked over the girl's elderly grandmother as she stood by the samovar pouring tea.
Iranian girls have definitely changed.
My parents came to California from Iran in the late '70s. I went to school with a handful of other Iranian kids, and it would have taken you no time at all to tell us Iranian girls from our American classmates. My mother was perhaps extreme in her formality on certain occasions, but without a doubt every Iranian girl was, like me, forbidden from wearing shorts or more than a discreet smudge of gloss. We did not pluck our eyebrows because, as our mothers would not have hesitated to tell us, only whores did that before they got married.
Back home Iranian girls were challenging the regime one lipstick swipe and blond streak at a time, but here our rebellions carried no such cachet--they only earned us the label "American," as in "May God kill me, you look just like those American girls. Go wipe off that lipstick/change that skirt/put on a sweater." In those years virginity came with a dress code, and if you weren't a virgin, well, if anything the dress code was enforced with greater insistence.
In less than a generation, all that has become ancient history.
I don't mean any of this as an apology for the old ways or, God forbid, a call for the reinstatement of the regime under which I was raised. For one thing, from an early age I possessed a full arsenal of protests, and where these failed, I got by with my talent for sartorial espionage. By high school I could duck expertly into a bathroom stall before classes started, stuff my jeans into my backpack and emerge wearing a cute little miniskirt--and there would not have been even a blush of shame on my cheeks to give me away.
And besides, there are some kinds of mischief so native, so natural, that they can't be covered up. For this, I need only consider the fate of my houndstooth suit.
My mother had ironed it for me the night before and laid it lovingly on a chair beside a coordinating black headband, cream-colored wool tights and a pair of black patent-leather dress shoes. By lunchtime the next day I was bolting across the soccer field in this full ensemble, in hot pursuit of a boy. My tights itched horribly and the shoes were slowing me down, but I managed to tackle him to the ground and straddle his chest. When, satisfied, I arose at last, a button had popped from my blazer and there were two dark green smears where my knees had dug into the grass.
My mother sewed on a new button that night, but the pleats of the skirt never did fall the same way again.
So perhaps rebellion is just a matter of degrees, and Iranian girls have not changed much at all. Maybe after 20 years in this country, I've turned out as Iranian as my mother. Still, these days when I go shopping I can't help but want something other than low-rise jeans and clingy T-shirts.
I think of my mother in pictures from Iran in the '60s, hair piled high, a stole thrown over one shoulder, gold bangles dancing at her wrists. She was channeling the Iranian pop diva Googoosh, who was channeling Maria Callas, who was channeling Audrey Hepburn. I long for those echoes, all those dissonant and disparate elements culminating in a style whose influences can't easily be traced.
It's just as well that no one can recognize a virgin by her clothes anymore, but not so long ago self-expression still allowed for a few stitches of grace and imagination, and I'm hoping these, at least, will soon make a comeback.