There are times when I look around me at what people are wearing and I despair. Maybe I'm turning into my own mother, but the desire to scream "What DO you look like?" at random passers by is growing stronger as I get older. When faced with a youth whose jeans are hanging so low that he can hardly walk, or confronted with a lady displaying more flesh than a butcher's shop, it strikes me that the concept of a national 'dress code' doesn't seem like such a bad thing at all.
Mind you though, that feeling doesn't stick around for too long before I recall my old school uniform (bottle-green gym-knickers, ughh) and think of my experience of the kind of countries that do have dress codes rather than just dress 'norms'. Two I've experienced most recently are Iran and Bhutan. Whilst the Bhutanese can get away with jeans and t-shirts when they are off-duty and the national dress is only enforced in official settings (like banks, government buildings, temples and even the post office), the Iranian dress code is a tougher system to accommodate.
Before I went to Iran I was reassured that it wasn't really such a big deal and I found that for a visit of 3 or 4 days, it was bearable. The question was whether I'd be able to put up with the restrictions for two whole weeks when I booked a holiday.
Let's try to get it into perspective. Millions of people live within the Iranian dress code and codes like it which proves that you can get used to living your life by someone else's rules. How annoying could it be for just two weeks? Then I realised that I'm not by nature a dress-rule keeper. If the style magazines say short/long/black/beige/blah blah blah, then I don't pay a blind bit of notice. I wear what I want to regardless. As a teenager with no money I frequently left the house with my mother's cries of "You are NOT going out dressed like THAT!" I knew it wasn't going to be easy to go somewhere where I had to do as I was told.
The basics of the 'hijab' dress code of Iran are fairly simple and not as scary as most people expect them to be. The two most important rules are dress modestly and keep your hair covered. Modesty is a relative thing and is open to a wide spectrum of interpretations. The most orthodox ladies and many in rural villages often wear the chador – the long bat-like black cape that covers everything and requires you to grow a couple of extra arms to keep it in place. If you work in a government office or a company with very religious management you might have to dress like that but for most city women and all tourists, it's not required or expected.
The standard in Iran is the 'manteau', which as its French name suggests, just means 'coat'. The manteau buttons up to the neck or slightly below and is of varied length depending on your level of daring. It is seldom shorter than mid-thigh and can be as long as ankle length. For style, think of your grandma's dressing gown and you won't be too far off target. The 'norm' is probably just above the knee though it's not so easy to know where the knee is on an Iranian woman as trousers or sometimes long skirts are worn under the manteau.
Head cover is non-negotiable and likely to cause the most annoyance. You don't have to master the art of artfully draping gauzy fabrics in gravity defying ways. You can in fact just fold a big square in half to make a triangle and then tie it under your chin. In combination with your raincoat-length manteau, you will probably feel like the Queen walking the corgies. If you can't get the hang of knotting and draping, you can buy a hood-like head cover which should satisfy any yearnings you have had to look like an extra from the Sound of Music. I took drastic action and went to Iran with a couple of Buff tube-hats. These are stretchy tubes of high-performance fabric which wicks moisture away from the head and keeps out wind and rain. They can be tied in dozens of bizarre and creative ways all of which look pretty stupid. But for Iran, the stick it on your head and make sure all your hair is hidden approach worked quite well. This was very effective because I am totally happy to spend my holiday looking like I have a pair or underpants on my head - so long as it's comfortable. I probably looked utterly ridiculous but I checked with our guide who said (after he stopped giggling) that I complied with the rules.
A few days into our holiday we went to Persepolis. A young woman and her male friend were fooling about amongst the ruins when she leapt up onto a large carved rock, whipped off her scarf and shook out her hair. We all looked on in horror; if she'd lifted her shirt and shaken her boobs at us we couldn't have been more shocked. It only takes a few days of being forced to cover your hair to make you ready to leap up and stone any young floozie who breaks the rules. I think it was a case of us all thinking "We're not suffering flat hair and itchy scalps whilst you do that, young lady."
Instead of a manteau, I wore long and shapeless shirts, each stretching to about mid-thigh. Colour isn't a problem and anyone who tells you that it's black or nothing is wrong. You might want to think twice about lime green or bright scarlet but there's no ban on colours or patterns – I just don't believe I've never met anyone with a complexion that benefited from such colours.
There are a few other things to watch out for. Toe-cleavage is probably not something you've given too much thought to but apparently a teensy glimpse of your feet could drive a man insane with lust and divert him from the course of a pious life; so the normal instruction is to wear socks. I've seen reports that you can get away with bare feet and sandals but I'm not convinced at all.
Gentlemen – how about you? Well I'm sure nobody would be surprised to hear that it's a lot easier being a man in Iran than being a woman. The main rules are no shorts, no short-sleeved shirts and please wear socks. There's a lot of controversy about whether you should or shouldn't wear suits and ties if visiting on business but my advice is to avoid ties. Ask yourself if you've ever seen an Iranian on TV with a tie? President Ahmedinajad is always tie-less and I've heard that the lack of ties in Iran is not a matter of casual choice – it's a conscious rejection of the old pre-revolutionary dress codes. Ties are associated with the corruption of the Shah's time and best avoided if you can.
If you are wondering how strict the rules are applied, then the answer varies a little depending on the season and whether the government is in a good mood or not. A couple of years back there was a bit of a crack-down on dress because people were flexing the rules a bit too far. In Tehran we saw girls with manteaux that barely covered their bottoms and with their headscarves pushed way to the back of their heads and their hair teased up into bouffant confections of Marge Simpson proportions. Young men with more hair-gel than could ever be considered wise were stepping out in denims and black leather jackets as if there was a revival of West Side Story in town. However if you are there as a tourist, everyone is happy to accept that you didn't grow up with these rules, you probably don't really understand them and they are just happy to see that you are trying your best and making an effort.
Out of the public eye you can relax the code a little. In private homes you can wear whatever you like and women routinely throw off their scarves the moment they cross the threshold. We went to parties where I certainly saw more expanse of thigh from the hostess than I'd suggest was wise in any culture. Hotel rooms often come with a seating area separate from the bedroom so you can invite friends and family to sit and relax without having to observe the dress code. It's also not uncommon for offices to have an entirely female staff so that the ladies can relax and wear what they like, only putting on their manteaux and scarves if the boss (who of course is male!) comes to visit.