Take a moment to look at this picture. Do you notice the incredible detail? The harmonized colours? The pleasant but erratic pattern? You’re looking at paisley, one of the most gorgeous decorative patterns humans have ever devised.
Paisley is an incredible pattern to work with because it is so full of possibilities: paisley can be done in any scale, it may be multi-coloured or monochrome, simple or intricate, and the pattern may be regular and repeating or varied, irregular, and seemingly random. This wonderful, natural design has deep, rich roots that date back to ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (modern-day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria), where it found its way into building decoration, carpets, fabrics, and the decorative arts of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Sumerians.
This nature-inspired pattern, originally known as botteh or boteh in its native Persian, means “bush, shrub, a thicket, bramble, [or] herb. Some would even take it to mean a palm leaf, cluster of leaves…and flower bud,” according to the Heritage Institute discussing Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion and philosophy.
The boteh pattern is a much-loved, time-tested pattern that eventually made its way into India where it really dug in its heels. For hundreds of years, beautiful cashmere wool shawls decorated with the boteh pattern were popular, and during the 1700s, boteh shawls cast a spell on European women who fell in love with the soft, warm, patterned fabric. During the colonial period, British men returning home from India brought the shawls as gifts for their women, and the demand for these exotic shawls grew in Europe. Seeing an opportunity, the British East India Company began to export the enormously popular and expensive shawls to Europe during the later 18th century.
As the shawls became more fashionable, the demand for them grew, but the high cost kept many away until European hand weavers began to copy the boteh patterned shawls and produced items at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. In 1805, the weaving mill in Paisley, Scotland became the boteh weaving centre of Europe, and the name Paisley became synonymous with the pattern. As weaving technology evolved in the UK, the original 2-colour paisley shawls turned into 5-colour patterns, though this still paled in comparison to the Indian versions that boasted up to 15 colours.
What is paisley?
The paisley pattern can range from very simple to extremely ornate, sometimes positioned loosely among leaves, or flowers, other times simple in regular and repeating patterns. The common denominator is the tell-tale curved teardrop shapes. It is the shape of the paisleys that I find particularly interesting because no one really knows what it’s supposed to represent, though there are many options and theories.
Paisleys could signify halved fresh figs, mangoes, gourds, licks of flame, or Cypress trees (sacred to the Zoroastrians); kidneys, tadpoles, tear drops, pears, or sperm if you’re Freudian. (During research, I came across a Jehovah Witness message board that discussed paisley as a representation of sperm and therefore considered “taboo”). In any case, paisley seems to have originated as a fertility symbol and becomes more fantastic as it evolves.
Modernized examples of this racy design seen below by Paul Frederick show the incredible variance in paisley patterns, from bold and multi-coloured paisley to quiet tone-on-tone, and from elaborate designs to simple shapes (photos used with permission):
Paisley in menswear
While the paisley motif was woven into fabrics most often worn by women, western men were left out of experiencing this gorgeous pattern until the 1920s-1930s, when paisley was printed on silk and used in men’s ties.
“In response to changing fashion,” says Francois Chaille in The Book of Ties, “Paisley is constantly being up-dated: hundreds of new paisley motifs make their appearance on ties every year. The motif provides rich opportunities for coloristic nuance and formal invention.”
Of course we in the west remember paisley worn extensively in the 1960s and revived in the 80s, but paisley has never really gone away. In fact, you may find a paisley tie in your collection, or maybe a paisley bandana or neckerchief (Cary Grant liked to wear these under his collars). If you’re lucky, you may have a Ralph Lauren paisley pocket silk for your breast pocket. Stylish introverts could opt for a pair of low-key paisley socks, and daring darlings may rock paisley Ted Baker shirts or a cool sports jacket with a chic paisley lining.
Paisley isn’t just for clothing. The high-end Italian design house, Etro, likes to incorporate paisley into its collections, and offers paisley luggage, day books, wallets, and manbags in their iconic paisley “comprised of red, turquoise, yellow, olive green and ivory adapted and evolved to become the signature pattern for the brand: an instantly recognisable style which became inevitably synonymous with the luxury world of Etro,” their website says.
If wearing paisley is luxurious, it is also refined. New York image consultant, John Molloy, said paisley ties signify good breeding and education. Alan Flusser, author of Dressing the Man says, “Of all the loud neckties, [Molloy] deemed paisley as the only permissible one because it was the “fun tie” of the upper middle classes.”
I implore you to pull out your whimsical paisley and wear it with confidence; it is so beautiful and varied in pattern, colour, and scale, that everyone will be able to find the right paisley print for them. It is a pattern that speaks of human history, elegance, and refinement; it is a delightful and permanently stylish pattern, and an excellent investment for any gentleman’s image.