Shirin Neshat's Fashion Influences Her Art — & Not The Other Way Around

by Kaitlyn Cawley
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Shirin Neshat posing in a black tanktop, a patterend scarf and large silver earrings

Shirin Neshat is obsessed with dichotomies. The 61-year-old Iranian-born visual artist toys with these seeming oppositions — East versus West; male versus female — in her art, and by extension, her fashion. Neshat moved to the United States when she was 18 to pursue an art degree at UC Berkeley, where she graduated with an BA, MA, and MFA. She relocated to New York City shortly thereafter, immersing herself in the art world, making connections, and learning everything NYC in the '80s could teach her (which was a lot).

Neshat works in a variety of media, most notably photography and film, and seeks to capture life's dichotomies in motion. In 2009, she won the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival. She was named Artist of the Decade by G. Roger Denson of the Huffington Post. Neshat spoke with The Zoe Report about her personal style, how it's affected her art and career, and why she can't seem to stop buying the same piece over and over again.

What piece in your closet instantly makes you feel more confident and why?

I am the kind of person that, when I like something, it's about repetition. So, for example, I buy the same shoe like 20 times, right? I have this habit of getting attached to certain things that I feel very comfortable with. It's not like a single garment; it's more my approach to clothing.

A few years ago, I was in Laos in Southeast Asia. And I loved the way the women wrapped this fantastic cloth around them, the sarongs. And they were simple, beautiful. I bought a lot of those fabrics. And I have made about 10 skirts that are all made of the fabric that was designed in Laos. Those are some of my favorite things to wear because they're not brand names.

I like this combination of the masculine and the feminine. I like this kind of glamorous, exotic look. But at the same time I'm very harsh, I'm very modern, and I'm very tough as a human being.

Other things I like a lot ... black pants and black shirts. I have rows of black pants, black shirts. So when you open my closet, there's a lot of black. But then there's a lot of gray and dark green, and then I have a lot of things that have some kind of pattern that are from Southeast Asia or Iran and the Middle East.

I have instinctively gravitated toward uniforms, like military uniforms.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Do you think there's a reason to gravitate toward uniforms?

It's odd because I actually really like those in combination with my jewelry, like my long earrings. I like this combination of the masculine and the feminine. I like this kind of glamorous, exotic look. But at the same time I'm very harsh, I'm very modern, and I'm very tough as a human being.

So I feel like I gravitate toward garments that are extremely feminine and sexy, but also garments that are very rigid, modern, and masculine.

Is that how you would define your personal style?

The only thing I can add to it is that I'm Iranian. So I come from Iranian culture in the Middle East where we have our own concept of beauty and style. Yet I've spent most of my life in the West, in America. So I'm also extremely Western and I'm very drawn to a few designers, but I'm not a brand person. So what you get at the end is like my personality. It's a hybrid of kind of Eastern/Western look.

I feel inferior if I have to go out to a public gathering, because I never buy the latest clothes. I never even know who's a designer that's popular. The only thing I have is what I put together.

Kind of like you're operating on these opposites, this dichotomy...

Yeah, just like my artwork, you know?

So has your style played a role in your career? Has it opened up or closed doors to you?

I remember when I was an art student at Berkeley, I was always very fascinated by Frida Kahlo. I was obsessed with her style and that it became an extension of her artwork.

Later, when I came to New York and became an actor, I realized how a lot of artists separate who they are as a person when they start the work they do. And then when you meet them, often they're very understated. You couldn't find a sense of style.

And then I noticed people like Louise Nevelson or even Julian Schnabel who wears pajamas in public. There are some people who are quite bold in letting themselves be an extension of their work.

I notice that what's striking a lot of people is how I wear my makeup. Over the years, I really asked myself, Where did this come from? And I realized that ever since I started to do calligraphy, and the way I use the brush and I write and I extend, it's like my eyeliner.

I went to Egypt and I stood in this incredible temple. It was all destroyed, but the only things left were these incredible big eyeliners. And they looked just like mine. And I was like, Oh, my god, could this possibly be subconscious? I think it's the combination of my calligraphy work and also maybe somewhere in the past I've been very influenced by the pharaonic goddesses and gods.

Ian Gavan/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

How does your style compare to the art world's?

I feel inferior if I have to go out to a public gathering, because I never buy the latest clothes. I never even know who's a designer that's popular. The only thing I have is what I put together. I'm never competing with anyone. I never try to outdo someone else. I always pull my hair back. I have a certain way of wearing makeup.

A few times where people have photographed me and they put me in different things and put on my makeup differently — even when Annie Leibowitz photographed me, she put my head down, my hair down, and she took off all my makeup. Whenever I look at that photograph, I think it's someone I don't know. I felt extremely uncomfortable.

So I feel like the way I dress is my security and confidence in the world. Because everything changes over time. But the only thing that I feel safe is how I deal with my body. And it's not anything other than that. It's not vanity, it's the sense of confidence that comes with how I feel about how I look.

What fashion category do you feel is lacking? What would you like to see more of?

Well, I tell you, when I first came to New York, it was in 1980s. I lived in the East Village, and it was the height of Bohemia. Most of us were wearing secondhand clothes, partially because we could not afford not to and partially because it was just so fun to put things together ourselves. And now I feel, now I'm talking mostly about the art world, where everything has become so clean, so modern. People in the art world are wearing black. They're wearing brand names. And that sense of Bohemia that influenced our fashion as artists has dissipated.

You know, if you go to an opening these days, you rarely see people dressed outrageously. And I'm always feeling a little out of place when I try to go with a big necklace or a big earrings. Maybe I'm overstated. But this wasn't the case before. People wore big hats, big cinched belts, and jewelry — you know, just art. I find that the whole world has become very unoriginal.

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

So what style item do you covet the most?

I'm really interested in people wearing beautiful bracelets and earrings and necklaces. It makes me feel like you could wear something simple like that, and then what could be the second thing is the accessory.

I never get rid of anything I like.

What other items do you own several versions of?

Oh, my god, my boots. DerDau. I have the same mini boots, at least 10 pairs.

If money were no object at all, what is one outrageous luxury fashion item you'd want to invest in and why?

I like outrageous clothes like the French designer [Jean Paul] Gaultier. I think he's outrageous. I love it. But I have to be honest, I don't believe in spending a lot of money on clothes. It's not that I don't have it, I just don't believe in it.

Which item in your closet have you owned for the longest?

I never get rid of anything I like. I have several authentic, traditional pieces of clothing from Southeast Asia, Morocco, Egypt. You know, because when I travel and I'm working, I try to also collect some tribal jewelry because that's where usually I find those garments that I buy. And then I keep them and I wear them every once in a while. So I have a few. Luckily, I've kept all of them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.