The Origins of Paisley, Ancient Babylon, and Indulgence

Written by Jason Disley
  • font size decrease font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email

Although it was originally called buta or boteh, meaning “flower,” People have seen resemblances to lotus flowers, a mango, a leech, yin and yang, a dragon, and a cypress pine.

In ancient Babylon, it was likened to an uncurling date palm shoot. Providing them with food, wine, wood, paper, hatch, and string—those things that people need—date palms symbolised prosperity and plenty. Paisley began its life as the privilege of cosseted, powerful men. It was deemed to be extravagant, and somewhat self-indulgent.

The Origins of Paisley Ancient Babylon and indulgence 2

According to Jude Stewart in Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns

Kashmiri shawls sprang up as early as the 11th century but found their first promoter in Zain-ul-Abidin, who ruled Kashmir from 1459 to 1470 and encouraged weavers from Persia and Central Asia to move to his kingdom. Their next champion was Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), who made the shawls central to the Kashmiri practice of khil’at, “robes of honor” ceremonially exchanged in political and religious contexts to establish a clear pecking order. (Being on the receiving end made one submissive and therefore inferior to the giver—not awesome, although scoring the sumptuous textiles made for luxurious compensation.) Shawls are given as khil’at were decorated with all sorts of patterns, although some scholars wonder if the paisley motif came to predominate because it resembled jigha, a crown insignia jewel used to pin a feather to a courtier’s turban. (Gradually the jigha elongated, more and more resembling the feather it anchored. So, yet another reading: Paisley is a feather.)

The Origins of Paisley Ancient Babylon and indulgence 1

Shawls started infiltrating Europe in the late 18th century when Kashmiri princes began including British East India Co. Officers in their ritual shawl-giving. The English officers sent the shawls home to their sweethearts, who clamoured for more. Fresh from conquering Egypt and next sniffing around India, many of Napoleon’s officers found themselves stationed near Kashmir and similarly tempted by the shawls. Napoleon’s wife Joséphine began stockpiling paisleys, and by the early 1800s, European desire for paisley had intensified into a frenzy.

Textile manufacturers noted paisley’s popularity, and that it could be profited on, and the race was soon on to produce more shawls. Importing finished shawls from Kashmir didn’t come close to meeting European demand, so it wasn’t long before manufacturers scrambled to produce their own. In Norwich, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland, factories soon thrummed to life, cranking out worthy imitations, although no amount of tinkering with silk, cotton, and wool blends could compete with the original pashmina wool for softness. A Kashmiri monopoly made the raw material impractical to import, so textile manufacturers shifted their focus to gaining other advantages: accelerating production time, lowering manufacturing costs (and retail price), and blitzing consumers with more dazzlingly complex designs.

Skip forward a few decades and in the 1960s we see great changes in Britain and Europe. Commonwealth immigration saw the Asian population of Britain grow, and as the decade moved culturally towards its looser more liberated, 'swinging' period thanks to post-war children coming of age. Fashion and music began to reflect a generic cosmic influence, epitomised by the Beatles' time with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in 1968. Hippiedom was taking over from the much more tailored button-up look of Mods just a few years before. The world was opening itself to everyone with travel and television, and music. Different cultures were influencing fashion, and as a consequence, Paisley became hugely popular once more. Paisley also echoed the psychedelic period where thought and lifestyles were being challenged thanks to the psychedelic properties of LSD. The trip on acid made colours seem brighter, or more complex, and the hectic yet somehow ordered swirls of pattern that made up Paisley helped reflect the experience. I could go on about how Paisley became more accepted by the mainstream. You only need to look at some ties from the 80s that reflect this. As businessmen added a bit of flair to their Conservative suits with a tie, that had such a pattern on it. Towards the end of the 80s, it wasn’t quite as predominant as it had been.

In the 90s however, when the psychedelic drug Ecstasy appeared, there was a period when Paisley became popular again as a new “Swirley” psychedelic taste in music and fashion became popular. Nightclubs became Mecca’s for Ravers, and retro fashions became popular again in some style tribes. On the independent music scene bands like Kula Shaker, and Oasis even took a leaf out of the precedent set by The Beatles in the late sixties and used influences from the Sixties, and subsequently India in their music, and as a consequence, this new psychedelic period gave rise to Paisley being popular again. When Liam Gallagher ex-frontman of Oasis started his own brand Pretty Green, it was natural that he would use Paisley in many of the brands collections.

Paisley, may disappear from time to time, but it is never far away, as its popularity and possibilities are endless. It is as pleasing to the eye now to some, as it was in ancient Babylon, and will no doubt remain inspiring artists and fashion designers for a long time yet.


Read 638 times Last modified on Tuesday, 27 October 2020 15:41
Rate this item
(2 votes)
Jason Disley

Jason Disley

About Us

ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


What We Do

ZANI is an independent online magazine for readers interested in contemporary culture, covering Music, Film & TV, Sport, Art amongst other cultural topics. Relevant to modern times ZANI is a dynamic website and a flagship for creative movement and thinking wherever our readers live in the world.