A Long and Winding History of Paisley

The story of paisley as we know it has its roots in the Sassanian Empire of Persia (200-650 AD) that extended from present-day Iran to the Indian-Pakistani border. Originally, the single paisley design was called boteh, meaning a leaf cluster or flower, or buta, meaning bud. The paisley form was also likened to an unfurling date palm shoot, the date palm symbolizing abundance and prosperity. Originally the design was a symbol of the privileged and powerful, used decoratively in royal architecture, crowns, regalia and court garments. By the 16th century it had become a popular textile pattern among the general population of Iran, as well as in the Kingdom of Kashmir. Shawls from the period show varying forms of the paisley design, as it evolved differently in different cultures. Another ancient culture that shared a similar design was that of the pre-Roman Celts, from whom we have archeological artifacts decorated with swirling paisley-like patterns. But it was the Persian version that would leave the most enduring mark on the Western world.

In 17th-century Europe, the wearing of paisley had spread through the Balkans, where it was believed to ward off the evil eye. As trade grew between countries, manufacturers in 17th-Marseilles, a major port between East and West, began mass-producing the patterns by means of early textile printing processes rather than weaving. England and Holland soon followed suit. But it was near the end of the 18th century that paisley would really take off. Napoleonic officers stationed near Kashmir began procuring woven Kashmiri shawls with paisley prints for their ladies back in France. Soon Empress Josephine herself was collecting them, setting the fashion in motion. In the 1800s, British East India Company officers would also send the shawls home to loved ones. The paisley prints grew so popular that Kashmiri manufacturers could hardly keep up with European demand. Factories in the UK began turning out their own imitations, meeting the competition with lower prices and ever more complex designs. Now working-class women could afford “paisleys” too, and for a while it seemed all the women in Europe - from fine ladies to household maids – were draped in paisley.

The story gets even more interesting when the town of Paisley in the Scottish lowlands became the center of the 19th-century weaving industry, so that its name became synonymous with the shawls produced there. Throughout the English-speaking world, “paisley” began to be used interchangeably with the actual shawls. In other words, a woman would be complimented on her “paisley” rather than her shawl per se. Other countries had their own nicknames for the pattern. The French called it tadpole; the Viennese, little onion; the Welsh, Welsh pears; and American quilters called it Persian pickles.

In 1875 the Liberty of London department store opened, specializing in exotic imports from the Near East. Not long thereafter, Liberty introduced its own signature “Liberty print” fabrics for clothing and furniture, many of which were Eastern-inspired paisley motifs. Up until the end of the 19th century, paisley prints in the Western world had been confined almost exclusively to women’s shawls. Now as the fashion for the shawls waned, paisley began appearing in luxurious items for men, such as smoking jackets, silk handkerchiefs and cravats. Too much paisley, however, was considered foppish (that too would eventually change). In America, the turn of the century saw the introduction of the paisley bandana, which comes from the Hindi word bandhnu, meaning “tie-dye.” Far from foppish, these bandannas were soon being sported by cowboys, farmworkers, and firefighters. Denim pants and cotton paisley kerchiefs became a veritable uniform of the Western frontier man.

For the first half of the 20th century, paisley quietly assimilated into its designated realms of everyday wear. Then in the 1960s, came the paisley revolution. The explosion of psychedelic music and culture, combined with new fascination for Eastern philosophy and culture catapulted paisley to the forefront of fashion and design. From London’s Biba Store and Carnaby Street shops to Warhol’s Factory in New York to San Francisco’s love-ins, paisley ruled again. What’s more, it was as prevalent on men as on women. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience – all turned it out in paisley and no excess of it could be deemed too foppish. Imported Indian-print paisley fabrics decorated hippie haunts everywhere. Fender put out a pink paisley guitar, and there was even a kind of LSD called “Purple Paisley.” While the mania for all things paisley may have “peaked” literally and figuratively in the 60s, paisley has not retired since – least of all among rock stars. In fitting homage, Prince named his recording studio after his song, “Paisley Park.”

Regardless of Western trends, the paisley pattern remains ever popular in its birthplace, Iran. In Central and South and Asian countries, it is woven with gold or silver threads into stunning textiles for display, weddings and special occasions, and it remains a prominent design in Indian saris. In Iran and Uzbekistan, paisley, or the buta, is evidenced in not only in fabrics, but also in traditional headdresses, jewelry, painting, carpets, pottery and even landscaping. And in Azerbaijan, to this day the buta is nothing less than the national symbol.

Throughout its long, seductively winding story, paisley has proliferated with endless diversity, managing to represent myriad things to many peoples. While it still retains different names in different countries, its bottom, curling line is nothing less than universal appeal. Like an old friend, paisley lifts our spirits, and has been welcomingly integrated into the fabric of human culture. Most likely it will keep reappearing on catwalks and fashion pages, and thanks to longtime devotees like Nick Graham, paisley is bound to remain a ubiquitous favorite in men’s ties and bowties, shirts, and of course, pocket squares. If you don’t have paisley in your wardrobe, it’s not too late to catch up.