This weekend, we’ve chosen an eye-opening real-life read that will have you gripped from its defiant opening scene – the author dashing through the streets of Tehran, dressed in heels and a mini skirt, feeling liberated and invincible “despite the danger.” Fashion Is Freedom by Tala Raassi offers an account of a woman’s relationship with fashion like no other.
Tala Raassi grows up in a beautiful Tehran suburb, where her parents host lavish parties with music, food and dancing. But the idyllic picture is ruptured in the 1980s, when the family is forced to seek refuge in their basement during the terrifying bombardments of the Iran-Iraq war. In the post-war years, a teenage Tala sneaks into underground cafes and stealthily arranged house parties, removing state-sanctioned conservative outer layers, to reveal her latest fashionable outfit. In these private gatherings, high-spirited teens mingle freely, and express themselves as they choose. And while Tala finds the strict regime at-times frustrating – like when they stop her and her brother on the street to make them prove they’re related – Tala mostly lives these years in a protected bubble. That all changes when a house party is raided and the guests are hauled off to prison. At 16 years old, handcuffed to her best friend for the crime of wearing a mini-skirt and heels, Tala realises her life will never be the same again.
Raassi’s tone is breezily confessional – as though a good friend is recounting her extraordinary life story over a coffee. And Tala’s story is extraordinary. She takes readers behind the political headlines, revealing the nuance of life for everyday Iranians. Tala also paints a picture of a determined young businesswoman who, in her teens and early twenties, moves to the US, masters English, and begins a difficult journey to success as a swimwear designer, with plenty of mistakes along the way.
The highest and lowest point is an ill-fated sponsorship of the Miss Universe competition – including a disappointing brush with owner Donald Trump – that leads Tala to realise that even in her new home country, women are still sometimes forced to dress for others. In one part of the world a young woman may be brutally whipped for wearing a mini-skirt. In another, told she must dance on a night-club table-top in a mini-dress and sash.
And there is a moment, in Dubai, when Tala realises how things could be, should be: “I saw women who wore hijabs, covered from head to toe, walking on the same beach as women who frolicked around in their European-cut bikinis. Their freedom of expression empowered me. I found a new respect for women who covered by choice for religious reasons they strongly believed in.” And it all suddenly clicks: it isn’t what a woman wears, Tala decides, but her power to choose that really matters. For her, Fashion Is Freedom.
Tala Raassi is an Iranian American fashion designer devoted to celebrating the beauty of women’s bodies through her designs. Newsweek has named her one of the ‘Most Fearless Women in the World’ and she hopes to continue to inspire women to follow their dreams. This is her first book.