The 1880s gold bustle gown is made out of a silk brocade fabric with a paisley motif. I loved this fabric as soon as I saw it, because of the color and how it catches the light, but also as this motif is actually quite fitting to the era the dress is from. There is a lot of history behind it, and although appropriate to late Victorian western European dress, the origins of it lie somewhere else. So in this post, some information about it!
First: what is a paisley motif? Basically, it’s a tear-shaped form with usually a little curl at the end and curve to it, often with intricate floral like detailing in the center.
The motif is actually very old, and originates in Iran, where it is called ‘buteh’ (which in Persian can mean bush, thicket, bramble and herb). We don’t know exactly how old it is, but it can already be found in the Iranian Sassanian period (224-651 AD).
A couple of centuries later, the motif has spread and can be found in various other regions such as Afghanistan and Egypt. The motif slowly starts to develop the typical curve on the point which we associate with paisley today. The fragment below is from a city in Egypt which was under Sassanian control, at the end of the silk road of the time. It shows how far it was already spreading.
Between the 15th and 18th century, the shape also moved towards Mughal India (c. 1526-1857), taking a prominent place there. Specifically, it became a popular motif on the (goat) wool Kashmir shawls woven in the north of India. These were treasured art pieces.
It was via these kashmir shawls that the buteh motif was introduced to Europe. These fine quality shawls started as a trade item, but became an enormous hit. Their popularity really took off around the same time that the Empire fashion with thin fabrics and high waists became popular. Shawls were the perfect accessory for these light dresses.
With this rise in popularity came the production of imitation kashmir shawls for the European market. Although they didn’t reach the craftmanship of the originals, there was such a demand that cheaper copies did very well. One of the most prominent places for the creation of these shawls was the Scottish town Paisley. There were other places in which shawls with buteh motifs were reproduced, but the name ‘paisley’ became synonymous with the shape in the English language.
During the 19th century, these ‘paisley’ shawls remained a very fashionable item for decades. A part of the appeal of them was the general interest in the ‘unchanging, mystic east’, which they became to represent. Orientalism, and the taste for the ‘exotic’ remained very important in 19th century western Europe. Of course, this ‘mystic and unchanging’ was a European fantasy which doesn’t do justice to the local industries and the way kashmir shawls also adapted to fashion over time. With the powers of colonialism and European improvements in weaving (and, therefore, a reduced demand for the ‘real’ Indian thing), the Indian kashmir industry eventually fell apart. In the late 19th century, the paisley you see in western-European dress is mostly produced in Europe itself.
In the Netherlands, the most common version was a bit heavier and thicker than the French and English versions, and was called ‘carrot cloth’, probably because of the color? They were used as square shawls, but also to make dresses from.
Due to its prominence in the 19th century, the paisley motif also appeared in many different types of regional dress, mostly through printed cottons which featured it. This happened in the Netherlands, but also for instance in France, Sweden or Romania.
In the 20th century, you see that the hippie movement revives the 19th century orientalism, and starts to incorporate middle-eastern garments and elements. Again, a feeling for the context and origin is usually missing, but it does revive an interest in non-European styles of dress. In the future, hopefully this interest will continue and expand, this time without the generalizations and colonialist views, and deepen the understanding of fashion as a truly global phenomenon, of which I think the buteh is a key example.
If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend checking out the articles linked to below! I especially love the online TRC Exhibition ‘from buteh to paisley’, which has a lot of information and beautiful items from their collection. If you check out their instagram, you can also find the replay of a live tour they did through the physical version a little while ago!