Author Tahereh Mafi Uses Fashion As Armor — And There's An Important Reason For That
At first glance, you wouldn't expect critically acclaimed Iranian-American author Tahereh Mafi to be a breakdancer, but as soon as you get to know her, it makes complete sense. The dichotomy of quiet intellectual and vibrant artist is echoed in her personal style, which is equal parts punchy and understated. The 30-year-old New York Times and USA Today best-selling author pens young adult fiction books, and her most recent novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, centers around the life of a Muslim girl in a post-9/11 America. Drawing heavily from her own teenage experience, the novel addresses the impact clothing, and more specifically, religious clothing, can have on one's interactions with and acceptance in society.
Mafi spoke with The Zoe Report about how her style is evolving as she enters her 30s, and how wearing a hijab has shaped so much more than her sartorial personality.
What item do you own that instantly makes you feel more confident?
Black leather pants. I typically style them with black boots — stiletto boots preferably — and then literally anything else on top. That's what I love about them. You can go really sharp and do like a full black leather or suede look, or you could do a soft, chunky sweater, or a really simple tee and sneakers.
How do you define your personal style?
I've always loved clothing as armor, and I think of my style and fashion in the same way. I have always been fascinated by the rituals of getting dressed and undressed for the day. I am an extremely private person, so clothing has always helped me armor myself for engaging with the world.
Getting dressed in the morning is part of how I prepare for the entire day. It's part of my mindset.
What is your daily uniform and how has it evolved over time? What do you typically gravitate toward?
My daily uniform for a long time was a leather jacket, jeans, and a pair of boots. Now, and I honestly don't know if this is actually because I'm a mom, I find myself wearing really sturdy mom jeans and bodysuits. Just a very simple formula.
How did your style change when you became a mother?
It took me a while to figure out what my sense of style was as a mom, because it's still really important to me to feel put together, to feel prepared for the day, and to feel like myself, because fashion is such a big part of my life. It took a minute for that evolution to happen.
How do you feel that your style has or hasn't played a role in your career?
Getting dressed in the morning is part of how I prepare for the entire day. It's part of my mindset. It's part of how I feel when I'm working, how I feel when I'm doing things. I work from home, but I get dressed to sit down at my computer. It's very important to me and it always impacts the way in which I work. I feel better about myself when I take the time to get dressed and get ready for the day.
I go shopping with my husband and even for the same designer, men's fashion is so much more affordable within context, right? So often I find a dress is 10 times more expensive than a man's jacket from the same designer.
How old were you when you first recognized your interest in fashion? Was there a specific moment that you can recall, or someone in your life who was influencing you?
I think I realized that fashion, clothing, meant something to me when I was very small. I used to go to flea markets and garage sales with my mom to pick out baby clothes for my dolls because I thought the options at the stores were terrible. I wanted to be able to dress them, and you know at the toy store the options were very limited. The outfits the dolls came in were not things I was interested in, so I was always like chopping up their clothes. Bless my mom, she was so patient with me. I would pick out little baby shoes for myself. I took it very seriously.
What is one really over-the-top luxury item that you would invest in?
Oh man! I mean, my knee jerk response is an Hermès bag, but I suppose it's not really an item of clothing. OK, I mean, yeah, this is a separate conversation, but I go shopping with my husband and even for the same designer, men's fashion is so much more affordable within context, right? So often I find a dress is 10 times more expensive than a man's jacket from the same designer. So, I feel these days everything for me is like, "Oh wow, if money were no object."
What fashion category, or what kind of product, do you feel is lacking that you would like to see more of?
I'm always searching for designers who are reinventing texture, and color, and fabric. Being like many other women, we’re running around and we wanna look good, but we also want our clothing to be practical. I feel like men have this in spades, it's just a foregone conclusion. I'm really, really interested in the idea of revolutionizing the shirt and pants for women. I'm always looking for pants that are practical and comfortable, with something special about them. Or a sweater that maybe has been 3-D-printed, or is completely sequined, but it's still comfortable and casual. I'm always looking for ways in which to make my daily functional wardrobe feel special but still practical.
I think for sure growing up wearing the hijab definitely taught me how much an article of clothing can be emotionally and politically charged.
What are some of the brands that you love currently? What brands do you typically rely on a lot?
The mom jeans I'm obsessed with are AGOLDE. They're so great and they're so comfortable. I give my daughter a bath in these jeans, they get all wet, and they still look good when they dry half an hour later. I really love Alexander Wang's boots, they're always functional and comfortable and cool. I've always loved what Haider Ackermann is doing. He just is so talented and I feel like we don't talk about him enough. His draping, and the textures, and the colors, like he just has this sort of magical mind and I'm always so fascinated to see what he comes out with next.
Do you attribute any of your natural affinity for style to anyone in your life?
My mom used to make a lot of my clothes when I was a kid, like really, really cute coordinating sets, and I have a lot of memories of going into Joann Fabric with my mom and picking through patterns. When I got a little bit older, she'd be like, "Well, what do you want? We can make it together." So as a little kid, I would cut out these patterns and pick out the fabric, and stitch things together. My dad is the one who taught me to work a needle and thread for the first time. He taught me how to hem my pants. I'm 5'2", so nothing ever fits me, and when I was a kid I would staple the hems of my jeans, and my dad saw me doing this one day and taught me how to work a needle and thread and how to hem clothing. He's an extremely disciplined, stylish man, and he was in the Army and he still has these things about him that feel very military, like the way that he gets dressed and polishes his boots. I've always loved military-style clothing, and I wonder sometimes if that's something I got from my dad.
I feel like we should all be able to respect each other's choices, and that women are beautiful no matter what they're wearing.
So, you write about this in your book A Very Large Expanse of Sea, but tell me a little bit about your experience as an American wearing the hijab and how it is part of your style?
Well, I think for sure growing up wearing the hijab definitely taught me how much an article of clothing can be emotionally and politically charged. I've often wondered if it helped me grow and nurture my love of fashion, because I was constantly aware of how people were judging me based on what I was wearing. And that awareness was just ... ubiquitous. It was constant. It was relentless. And so I definitely think that those two things in my life are connected.
For me, a hijab is part of that same conversation we had earlier. It feels like a kind of armor I wear when I face the world and it makes me feel good about myself, and it makes me feel strong, and I like the way I feel when I wear it. I seldom have the opportunity to tell people the way that I feel about it because nobody ever asks, they just make assumptions. I think the most hurtful thing is when women fight you because they think that what you're doing or the choice that you've made is anti-woman. We're all making choices about our bodies. We're all making sartorial decisions about the way in which we want to represent ourselves and the way in which we like to dress when we face the world. And I feel like we should all be able to respect each other's choices, and that women are beautiful no matter what they're wearing.
Can you recall an outfit that you've worn that was iconic for you? Something that signified a turning point in your personal style?
I have this cream silk suit that I really like. When I was having it tailored, I remember I was standing on that little platform and I was looking in the mirror and thinking, "I want to dress like this more often." It was for a work function and I just wore it casually with a T-shirt underneath, but it inspired me to make a promise to myself to wear more decadent fabrics and more practical silhouettes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.