Though the storied pattern has endured enormous ups and downs in popularity, it has made an indelible impression on fashion, design and culture around the world.
Paisley originated during the Safavid Dynasty of Persia (1501–1736) from a floral motif called a boteh. The boteh pattern, a symbol of renewal, decorated royal regalia, crowns and court garments, as well as textiles used by the general population. The pattern is still widely popular in Iran today and its uses go far beyond clothing – paintings, jewelry, frescos, curtains, tablecloths, quilts, carpets, garden landscaping and pottery all sport boteh designs.
The boteh pattern, adapted in India, started showing up in Kashmir on patterned shawls woven from goat's wool. In the 1770s, these intricately designed, brightly colored, very expensive and highly coveted shawls made their way to Scotland and other parts of Great Britain via military personnel returning from service in the colonies and via traders of the East India Company. The popularity of the shawls grew quickly and became a must-have for every well-to-do woman's wardrobe.
The town of Paisley, Scotland, adapted the pattern for easier production and became the epicenter for weaving the shawls – producing more shawls than any other location – and as a result, "paisley" became the generic term for the pattern. But by the 1860s, the golden age of Paisley weaving came to an end, thanks to the arrival of the bustle (a gathering of material at the back of a woman's skirt to provide added fullness). After a century of adapting the shawl to various fashion needs, there was simply no way around the fact that wearing a shawl over a bustle destroyed the point of having a bustle.
Paisley made a comeback in the United States during the 1960s, especially during the "Summer of Love," when an unprecedented gathering of as many as 100,000 young people converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, for a phenomenon of music, psychedelic drugs, sexual freedom, creative expression and politics. John Lennon had a Rolls Royce painted with paisley. Also, Fender Guitars made a popular Pink Paisley version of their Telecaster by sticking paisley wallpaper onto the guitar bodies.
Equally loved and hated – with rarely any middle ground – paisley still finds its way into the most contemporary designs, such as those from luggage and bag maker Vera Bradley. And according to Alexis Contant, vice president of Boston Design Center, paisley is the hot pattern for 2008. The new paisleys, showing up on everything from wall and window coverings to bedding, pillows and lamp shades, are making their debut in rich and vivid reds, purples, greens, golds, browns and metallics.
Paisley: does it go with everything or with nothing? You decide.