This article was submitted by an author who wishes to remain anonmyous
It was in a salon in the heart of a bustling north Iranian town where I learned about the fine art of Persian posturing. Amid the curvaceous middle-aged women who came to get blond highlights, arched eyebrows, and fuzz-free faces, there was one young woman who stood out. Nadia was 21 and from a lower-middle-class family. I had heard from friends of friends that she had trouble making ends meet. And yet Nadia came into the salon wearing knee-high black imitation suede boots and a long black wool coat, sporting a black leather bag, her face expertly made up in black eyeliner and lipstick. She looked as if she could be right at home in Chelsea rather than in an Iranian township in a province where more than six million residents live under the poverty line.
Nadia was not the only one. Fatemeh, a 22-year-old homemaker, was dressed in a camel trenchcoat, fake Louis Vuitton crossbody, skinny jeans, and a shawl covering only the bare minimum of expertly coiffed hair when I first met her at a hipster bookstore in one of the city’s upper-class neighborhoods. Her flawless complexion, delicately made up with foundation, a hint of eyeliner and mascara, and clear lip gloss, revealed little of the hardships she faced as a child growing up in poverty on the south side of town. Only her hands — perhaps too tanned and cracked for a young woman her age — betrayed the dishwashing days of her youth, where she worked in the kitchen of an upper-class firm. “I never wanted kids in high school to think we were lower class…so I dressed nicely,” Fatemeh explained. “My mother couldn’t pay for my clothes, so at 16 I started to work to be able to pay for these. See, look at my hands, they’ve already wrinkled.”
There are more stories. There is 16-year-old Shirin, who, though she lives under the poverty line, borrows and swaps trendy clothes and accessories with her well-resourced cousins and friends. Her hair is always gelled and poofed, with strategic curls framing her face and peeking from underneath her hejab. There is Mohammad, a 17-year-old day laborer, who dresses in the latest fashions and does his hair to “make the rounds” in the upper-class districts. There are the housecleaners who dress in intricately designed black chadors and leather purses for their daily commutes though their income is, again, not enough to pull them above the poverty line. There are even the young female street beggars, who slip into skinny jeans, metallic thread shawls, and form-fitting tunics in their off hours.
When I expressed my surprise about the many variations on the flaunting of false wealth, the salon owner explained: “Iranians here want to show that they have more than they do…even the poor, at least appearance-wise, live like the upper-middle classes. They’ll wear similar styles, but they might not spend as much on it. But at least it’ll look like something the privileged would wear.” Maryam, a well-dressed young woman from a lower-middle-class background, added, “They may not be able to afford dinner, but they’ll never let on.”
But might the Iranian obsession with appearing better off than they are be more than simply reckless spending? Could it actually be a smart business and life strategy? The salon owner had made Nadia into her right-hand woman and recently chose Maryam to replace her once she retired. Fatemeh has made enough connections to display and sell her needlework at a renowned atelier in the city. Maybe they were all on to something — sometimes appearances are all we have to go by. They may not reveal how Fatemeh spends the early morning hours designing intricately sewn patterns or how articulate and hardworking Maryam is. But they matter, and they matter a great deal in a society where appearances are often the only saving grace of the lower classes.
A simple walk along the city’s busiest street gives testament to this. Young men selling cheap imported scarves on a sidewalk corner wear pressed blue jeans, bomber jackets, and imitation designer watches. Their hair is expertly flat-ironed, sprayed, and spiked. Young women, hoping to look chic on a budget, come in crowds to buy their goods. Fedoras, tan jackets — perhaps a bit oversized — and loose twill pants are the hallmark of the middle-aged street beggar who can be found in the early evening hours dragging himself on his knees to elicit pity. The street musician who sits near a busy intersection playing classical Persian songs on the accordion, has sported the same look for the past year: worn, but clean black dress pants and a white, long-sleeved collared shirt. There are often plenty of bills in the small bowl placed strategically in front of him.
At first glance, the trendy young street vendors and properly attired beggars may suggest a culture obsessed with its own looks. But that touches only on the surface. Speaking in the city’s bazaar with two male teenage stall vendors who sported tight jeans, bright sweaters, and black chokers, one told me, “You have to look good. Otherwise people won’t come into your store.” His comrade agreed completely. In a society, then, where preserving dignity is central to daily interactions, it is other people’s looks that really matter. Iranians from all walks of life go out of their way to save face, to appear that they have a certain level of cultural and material abilities — in short, to look good for others rather than for themselves. Doing otherwise would signify failure.
For the poor, appearances have become an investment strategy. Among those who don’t have the connections, the money, or the education to make it, clothes and accessories are their one means to aid the climb up the ladder of socioeconomic mobility. A manipulated appearance saves face, but more importantly, it gives the poor the leverage they need to move from the bottom up. They may not make the move in leaps and bounds, but they move — slowly and in measured steps — nonetheless. And sometimes that is enough to feel that they are, as one young man put it, satisfied enough.
*This article originally appeared on Tehran Bureau