Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Costume Mercenary's Secret Love for Paisley

It all began when the Costume Mercenary fell in love with a stretch of bronze paisley-patterned brocade. It eventually became an underskirt (pictured being worn with a Tudorbethan robe and dress). From that love affair came the bastard children of two cloaks lined in silver pailsey-patterned brocade.

The cloaks were brought back in due course to shores of England and when shown to the friends of the Mercenary, the remark, "it's like wearing my grandmother's curtains as a cloak."

It did not immediately sound, by any means, like a positive review. This was, in fact, the first time I had put a pattern to the term "paisley" (one often occurring with mild derogatory connotations in fiction). This eventually lead me onto a quest to understand the history of the pattern and, perhaps more importantly for my purposes, make sense of the connotations

Here follows (under the cut) a rambling account of what I have learnt as well as some photos of the paisley-bearing garments the Mercenary has made (it is very strange to discover that one has a secret love affair with a pattern)...

Paisley, bearing some resemblance to a funny looking comma, has been around for an awfully long time. Almost two thousand years by most counts (three thousand by others), and really, after that point, things all get a little fuzzy. I've yet to trace a more reputable source beyond internet traders and wikipedia assuring me that the origins lie in a convergence of a floral spray and the ancient cypress tree. (The repetition of the phrasing in all these sources is incredibly suspicious in my mind, but perhaps it's just that the word convergence has such a nice ring to it.) There's a much longer and impenetrable article on the subject titled "From Cypress Tree to Botteh", which is more promising and perhaps unsurprisingly, it's more complicated than is necessarily immediately interesting to the casual reader. There's a vast number of theories of what it actually is, ranging from mango to chinese dragon, a date palm to half of a yin-yang symbol.

Paisley's more immediate history, however, seems to be from the gradual stylization of realistic plant designs on Kashmir shawls in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They apparently began as whole plants, complete with roots, drawing their inspiration from - funnily enough, just to bring the whole thing round - English herbals.

What is striking, however, is the pattern's history and adoption. The loaded stereotype, I am assured, is of the 60s and 70s, with its carefree (irresponsible), free loving (promiscuous), free spirited (directionless) hippies and has become something of a Bohemian Wardrobe Staple. As evident from my phrasing, this has all largely passed me by, growing up in the distant colonial shores. But at quite the other end of its history is the East India Trading Company (the very villains of the recent Pirates of the Caribbean films) bringing back the first paisley shawls in their biannual shawl sales in London, which exchanged hands for the price of small houses. (More specifically, Sir Walter Scott's French bride, Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl worth 50 guineas - which would buy a top end BMW today.) Quite a world apart from the far eastern mysticism and the carefree rebellion of the hippies.

That said, the high demand for shawls (known as "paslieys") led to attempts to mimic the style and substance. French experimentation led to the death of an awful lot of goats. The weavers of such shawls came to be the among the most highly paid and well educated workforce in the country, as well as highly politicised and unionised.

The paisley pattern itself is described by Sophie Campbell (in an otherwise very informative article):
It makes you think of germinating seeds, fecund wombs and wriggling spermatozoa. It encapsulates every Western stereotype about the erotic East. And yet it writhes sexily across the blue-and-white "kirking shawls" once worn by respectable Scottish ladies to weddings and christenings.

Which I'm really not sure about. Sperm's rather more famous for long tails. Taking a straw poll of the room, it's agreed it something more of an amoeba. There's some bacteria that's "comma-shaped" but not particularly paisley-ish. But all-in-all, Campbell seems rather too keen by the mental image (and it is undeniably amusing) of respectable ladies wearing shawls with writhing, wriggling sperm on it for its own sake.

The point I suppose I'm meandering to is that Paisley's history is really rather fascinating and one that isn't without its mysteries (as "no examples from before the end of the seventeenth century survive, the origin of Kashmir shawl weaving cannot be resolved"), which really isn't much of a point at all. For all of Dan Brown's nonsense, no symbol means one thing and only one thing, understood with perfect clarity by all humanity. Paisley, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn't mean one thing. The same pattern could evoke Victorian shawls to some eyes, granny curtains to others and freelove hippies to yet others.

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