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by Marion Grace Woolley
When I set about writing Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, I really had to confront my prejudices. Well, not exactly prejudices, more those inbuilt stereotypes you unwittingly collect from the media and your parents’ bedtime stories.
I knew Iran to be a strongly Muslim country. Living in the West, the images you get bombarded with in the media tend to be of women heavily veiled in black, not an inch of skin showing except that between their eyes.
Somehow, I knew this wasn’t the correct image for my Mazandaran, the world which I wanted to write about. How could it be? The Persia of my dreams came from the fairytales I loved as a child. That, and I Dream of Genie.
Arabia, Persia, the Middle East – wasn’t that where Aladdin flew across the sky on his magic carpet? Where forty thieves hid in a cave? Where women danced the Seven Veils in colourful see-through costumes?
Well, not exactly.
Neither of those two stereotypes were quite correct, but there where elements of truth in both.
Some of the things that surprised me most whilst researching the costumes for this story, set in 1850s Northern Iran, are as follows:
1) Quite a few articles mentioned that the full veil was more of a status symbol than a religious one. Just as women in 1850s British society were looked upon favourably for the paleness of their skin, because it meant they had not been toiling in the fields, so, too, were women who wore the full veil. Its impracticality denoted high status, free from menial work. As such, it caught on as a bit of a fashion statement in the same way women in the West adopted high heels (a Persian import) from men. Up until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, to be veiled or unveiled seems to have been largely a matter of personal preference.
2) Some women wore very short skirts. I first noticed this on a photograph of a peasant girl. She wore a bell skirt puffed out above her naked knees. I can’t find the link to that particular picture anymore, but here’s one of an Iranian lady who I think has the exact, impertinent pout of my main character, Afsar.
3) The height of fashion in the harem included some rather quirky fads, such as the darkening of the upper lip to look like a moustache – for those women not fortunate enough to have a natural mustache – and the use of kohl to create synophrys: a unibrow!
4) The Paisley pattern, long associated with Scotland, is, like high heels, originally a Persian export.
One of my favourite scenes to write comes towards the middle of the book, where Afsar attends a ball at the Shah’s palace, and everyone is dressed in the Western style of that time. She has to remove her şalvar and don a full crinoline with a bodice that accentuates her bosom. The sense of indecency this rouses means that she is almost incapable of leaving the house.
For me, that scene served to highlight how our sense of fashion is steeped in culture and tradition, and how personal clothing is to each individual. We use fashion to express our own personalities, and we seek refuge in it for our sense of identity. The surest way to upset a character is to dress them in something they would not usually choose to wear.