In 1998, American-born, Iranian-raised teenager Tala Raassi joined friends a party in Tehran to celebrate her Sweet 16th. There were boys and Western music, and Raassi chose to wear a miniskirt.
But when the gathering was raided by Iran’s religious police, the teenager and her friends were arrested for their ‘indecent clothing’. She was ordered to spend five gruelling days in Vozara Prison and received 40 lashes as punishment.
Now a successful swimsuit designer and author living in the US, Raassi recognises the importance of fashion as a form of personal and political freedom.
She spoke with marie claire during her guest appearance at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
MC: What is your earliest fashion memory?
The earliest for me would be when I was 8 years old, the first thing I ever did was to cut eight inches off the bottom of my mum’s fur coat to make my Barbie a fur coat. And she was not really happy about that because that coat belonged to her mother who had passed it down to her after she passed away. I was definitely punished for that!
MC: What was the fashion scene like in Tehran?
Behind closed doors people lived a different kind of life. There were parties and alcohol, and women wore fashionable clothing, but when you went into the streets you’d cover up and obviously obey the rules. I grew up watching family members all glammed up so it was a little bit of a culture clash between that and going to school and then having to cover yourself.
In Iran there were no mainstream boutiques. I didn’t know what a fashion designer was and my family really wanted me to go to law school. I think it was when I was back in the US where I realised that I could make a business out of this, from my passion.
MC: In 1998 you were arrested for wearing a miniskirt at a party. What was the hardest thing about your five days in jail?
One was not knowing what was going to happen, because when I first got arrested we were very sure that this was just going to be over in a few hours and we were going pay for our sentence and get out.
Also, as a 16-year-old, I grew up in a loving family and I was very cultural and traditional. So being in a prison with drug dealers and thieves and all sorts of people, I felt like I was in a completely different universe. It was shocking. A wake-up call to what the outside world is like.
MC: Would a teenage girl face a similar punishment in Iran now?
It’s a yes and no. We were arrested for being at a co-ed party. We were in 'indecent' clothing listening to Western music. So it was a culmination of things. I think women in Iran have a lot more freedom now than they did when I lived there. I follow my friends on Instagram [in Iran] and I see the parties they go to and the things they do. I think they can get away with a little bit more now than back then.
But just recently last year there were a bunch of Instagram models that were arrested for posting photos. So if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, anything can happen.
MC: You have a powerful message about fashion as form of freedom. Can you unpack that?
Freedom is about having the choice to wear what you want. Whether you want to cover yourself or a wear a bikini, it’s a personal choice, and it’s taken away from a lot of people around the world.
I think the people that punished me for wearing indecent clothing are just as bad as the people making someone take off their burkini on a beach. Fashion is about freedom, to me personally, because I think as humans we should be able to wear what we desire without the fear of punishment or judgment.
MC: You run your own swimwear line, were the swimwear sponsor for Miss Universe in 2010 and have written a memoir, Fashion is Freedom. What are some of the ‘pinch me’ moments in your career so far?
There’s been so many! Being on a book tour in Australia is an awesome feeling – just getting out of the airport in Brisbane.
Another cool experience, being in Australia for me, was meeting Jesinta [Franklin] at Miss Universe and the effect that my story had on her. Six years after we met at Miss Universe, she wore an outfit and many said it was not appropriate because she was showing parts of her body. I hadn’t talked to her in years and she put something on her Instagram about how I said ‘fashion is freedom’.
MC: What’s next for you?
Once I get back [to the US] I’m going to be expanding my line to activewear. It will be a very interesting transition for me as a swimwear designer to go to more activewear, and ready-to-wear as well.
MC: It sounds like you’re living your dream.
Growing up in Iran and now being a swimsuit designer in America, it’s such a different world and I was able to do it. It takes hard work but if you’re passionate about something anything is possible.
Tala Raassi's book, Fashion Is Freedom, is available now. You can shop her swimwear at talaraassi.com.