Defrocking the Nation
Unveiling and the Politics of Dress
From travelogues to memoirs, historical literature teems with absorbing accounts of Islamic women and the veil. The harem and the practice of seclusion undoubtedly have something to do with this fascination. Veiling, dictated by law and tradition, consumes contemporary societies beyond the boundaries of Iran. This curiosity makes sense from a historian’s vantage point since Iranian women have twice become subjected to contradictory legal injunctions on veiling, and no study of Iranian women would be considered complete without a mention of veiling.
In Iran, clothing became a barometer of politics. The controversy over dress—the decision to veil or not to veil, the choice to wear or eschew the tie—expressed more than just a personal preference. The choice of attire not only reflected consumer interests and popular tastes but also revealed political proclivities.1 State intervention in fashion signaled an attempt to impose uniformity and control upon the individual. A citizen’s outfit expressed either social conformity or political dissent.
Western visitors to Iran in the nineteenth century described Iranian society through descriptions of women’s and men’s attire. Tastes in attire exposed social mores and affected the public interactions of women and men. It is perhaps helpful to re-create—however