From Buteh To Paisley

Printed cloth sample with paisley motifs. European, 1960's. Printed cloth sample with paisley motifs. European, 1960's. TRC 2017.3224

1. Introduction

We all know the motif, that cone-shaped curvy form which is so pleasant to look at and feels so peaceful. The eye is taken from the side to the top and down again, all with a feeling of balance. It is so well-known that it is generally accepted as just being one of those patterns that have always been there.

But does anyone ever think about its origins, and why it is so popular all over the world? If they do, they would soon find out that there is more to this ‘simple’ motif than meets the eye.

This TRC Leiden exhibition explores the history of the paisley motif, its ancient origins and its development to the present day. It also looks at how it is currently used for a wide variety of textiles and garments all over the globe. 

The paisley motif is actually one of the few non-geometric design forms that can be found throughout the world. It is worn on the garments of men, women and children of all ages, literally from the cradle to the grave. Moreover, it is worn by people of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It is also one of the very few motifs that are used to decorate clothes, ranging from underwear (male and female), through stockings, ties and blouses, to skirts, trousers, bikinis and beach hats.

2020.4204dWoman's T-shirt with depiction of a skull filled with paisley motifs. Produced in Bangladesh for British market, 2020 (TRC 2020.4204).The motif can also be found on the attire worn by a Hell’s Angels biker, a Los Angeles gang member, a steampunk goth, a respectable London banker, or a granny who is knitting socks for the grandchildren, all without any comments being made.

Some say the motif was inspired by the poplar tree, others that it was the cypress tree, or perhaps the ‘bent’ cedar. Others have suggested that it derives from an almond or perhaps a cashew nut. It is also regarded by some people as representing life and eternity, while others describe it as a symbol of strength with modesty.

In India the paisley motif is often said to be derived from a mango (genus Mangifera), because of the similarity in shape. Mangos are regarded as a symbol of fertility and fecundity in various Indian, as well as East African cultures.

And, of course, for many people the motif has no meaning whatsoever, only that it is a favourite form that can be worn by anyone whenever and wherever they want.

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