Clothes make the mullah

In Iran, home to some of the best-dressed clergy in the Islamic world, looking good is part of the job.

Published January 5, 2005 4:03PM (EST)

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 that quite a few clerics are no stranger to chic. The graceful draping of good cloth, the layering of colors, the yellow slippers and the 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 Mohammed 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 President Khatami's wardrobe. He is seen as very elegant, and in fact as 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 the president 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, 5-year-old mind, I wanted women to be the elegant ones, showing off their clothes.

Over the past 25 years the Islamic government has successfully promoted Qom as a center of Shiite Muslim learning to rival Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. Students and mullahs from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf, Pakistan and Afghanistan frequent its seminaries. Pilgrims from the Shiite diaspora in Africa, America 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. And visitors can check their e-mail at the many "coffee net" places around town (although none of them actually serves coffee).

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 toward 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.

On the upper floor of the arcade I found a man who specialized in various kinds of cloth imported from Thailand, India, Korea, Iraq, Italy and England. This tailor turned out to be an Iraqi, the uncle of another tailor I had spoken to briefly downstairs.

Many of the tailors in Qom, it emerged, are Iraqi Shiites. This particular family of tailors, the Asgari Najafis, had been deported by Saddam Hussein about 24 years ago at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, along with thousands of other Iraqis of Iranian ancestry. A younger brother of the family, Ali Asgari Najafi, who had spent most of his life in Qom and spoke fluent Persian, showed me the clothes and offered to model them himself. "I am very handsome, so these clothes look really good on me," he explained with a big smile. "The main piece of clothing, apart from the turban," said Asgari Najafi, "is the long robe. Those who want to be chic and contemporary wear the labbaadeh, but those who are more traditional and want to avoid looking wealthy or fashionable wear the qabaa. You may have noticed President Khatami always wears the labbaadeh, but the supreme leader [Ali Khamanei] prefers the qabaa."

Both the labbaadeh and the qabaa are long and come down to the top of the slippers. (This is the case for traditional clerics who do not wear trousers; for those who do, the robe comes down to the middle of the legs.) But whereas the qabaa has a V-neck and one side crosses the other at the waist, the more expensive labbaadeh has a high, round collar, tighter sleeves and stiff paneling in the chest area so that it looks very tailored. Many believe that the high-collared version is directly influenced by the robes of the Orthodox and Catholic priests in Lebanon, where large Christian and Muslim communities coexist.

Both robes can have numerous inside pockets -- as many as eight for pens, books, prayer beads, watches and mobile phones. A frequent sight on the streets of Qom is of mullahs reaching inside their coats for their mobiles as they ring in various global tones. Many mullahs come for several fittings and can be quite picky, says Asgari Najafi: "The Lebanese ones would rather spend less on their food and pay for better clothes."

The star tailor of Qom is a snowy-haired 74-year-old with a bright smile. Abolfazl Arabpour sews clothes for the president and many important members of the government and used to make clothes for Ayatollah Khomeini. "I started out in Tehran making clothes for army officers in the days of the monarchy," he says. "I hated that job, but I must say that the detailed work of army uniforms has served me well in making fine clerical outfits." Arabpour's logbook is inches thick. Altogether he has four workshops in Qom. His sons have also become tailors, and many other tailors name him as their master.

Clerical dress has become political in Iran. In earlier days, according to Arabpour, clerical clothes were shapeless and loose. Over time, and particularly since the revolution, they have become far more tailored, varied and formal. Because the new order gives some members of the clergy power and prominence, these politicians want to look their best, especially on television. But political power has also exposed the clergy to intense public scrutiny -- so for those mullahs who want to avoid politics or close association with the government, there is a real temptation not to wear their clerical garb except when it is required by their religious activity.

"On the street, if I wear clerical clothes, some people will greet me because of it, and others will insult me for the same reason," says one Tehran mullah. "But when I don't wear it, I get neither reaction. And I prefer that." This mullah has stopped wearing clerical clothes except on very special occasions. When you wear clerical clothes, he continues, "you are advertising for your religion and implicitly calling people to it. But I don't believe that this is my duty as a cleric."

Another cleric whom I speak to, who is wearing a light gray-blue qabaa of exquisite cotton with short open seams on both sides of the waist and a white shirt with gray stripes to match the qabaa, insists that interest in clerical fashion is not confined to Islam: "In all religions, the only principle has to do with being covered, for men and for women. Even in Europe until about 100 years ago, it was considered impolite not to wear a hat or some kind of head covering in public." One of the hottest topics for mullahs now is how to respect the dignity of clerical clothes while responding to the necessities of modern life. One long-standing controversy is whether they should ride motorcycles in clerical dress. "If it was up to me," says one, "I would ban it; it just looks so undignified, especially when they also have their wife and child riding with them and they have to tuck the ends of their mantle into their trouser pockets."

In Iran's hit film of 2004, "Marmulak" ("The Lizard") -- banned after a month in the cinemas, apparently because it was felt to be too mocking of the clergy -- a thief dons clerical clothes to escape from prison. But he soon finds out how many things he cannot do in these clothes without catching attention, such as running fast when he thinks the police are after him.

Arabpour echoes the lesson of the film, pointing to the racks of half-finished clerical robes hanging at the back of his shop: "There is only air in these clothes. What really matters is the character of the man who wears them."

By Niloofar Haeri

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