Now & Then: The History of the Paisley Print

Perfectly Paisley: Stella McCartney shows us a fresh, modern way to wear the print for spring 12.

Fashion’s swirling tapestry of theme, color and fabric all come together to tell a very particular story each season. The emergence every five years of the – similarly non-linear – paisley print allows fashion detectives like myself to ponder the clues to its most recent return route.

Print in abstract, Celia Birtwell for Ossie Clark, 1969.

Were spring’s psychedelic 60’s-style silhouettes a foreshadow? Is it a dandyish reaction against all the recent prim ladylike looks? It’s hard to know, but paisley may well be around for a while if Frida Giannini’s darkly glamorous collection for Gucci last month is any indication –  with its overt references to the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris-ish plushness. Whatever it took to reawaken this time around, the sentimental and eccentric pattern is never far beneath the surface. As Prince’s 1985 anthem attests, “Life won’t be so bad/Paisley Park is in your heart.”

The first paisley shawls were worth more than a London townhouse. Hand embroidered by Indian artisans, they sometimes took up to 5 years to be completed. 

The well-loved teardrop design originated from Kashmir, India. The motif is thought to be taken from the early shoots of the date palm, which is known in India as the symbol of fertility. Hand embroidered paisley shawls were brought to Europe by the East India Company in the seventeenth century and were all the rage, especially in Britain. To keep up with the demand, the Scottish town of Paisley began to mass-produce the print, hence the name “paisley.”

You can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde in the print. It was as much a symbol of the Victorian aesthetics movement as peacock feathers, sunflowers, lilies and cattails, but the fever for paisley dried up by the late 1800’s.  It wasn’t until some 20th century Wildean creatures claimed it as their own that it reemerged. Worn by icons of counter-culture rebellion such as Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and the Beatles who, no doubt, admired the “pickled pear” for its eastern exotic heritage and freethinking provenance.

She’s with the band: Marianne Faithful in Paisley.

Now & Then: The Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The Cocktail Dress

Now & Then: The Trench Coat

Now & Then: The Bold Brow

Now & Then: The History of the Cuff

Now & Then: The History of Turtlenecks

Now & Then: The History of Tights

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Now & Then: The History of the Chevron Stripe

Now & Then: The History of Penny Loafers

Now & Then: The History of Go-Go Boots

Now & Then: The History of the Poet Blouse


Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.