Paisley, the teardrop-shaped pattern that has decorated everything from Torah scrolls to bandannas, has its moment in “Paisley, A Princely Pattern,” an exhibit at Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art.
The design-focused exhibit, open since May, weaves between past and present as it follows the metamorphosis of paisley from its origins in Iran, to Turkey, to Europe and the rest of the world.
Originally called boteh or buta, the Persian word for bush or shrub, paisley was also tied to the cypress in Zoroastrian folkloric tradition, the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran.
“It was thought of as the tree of life,” said the museum’s head curator Idit Sharoni, describing the cypress as an evergreen, long-living tree popular in Persian literature and art.
Sharoni, along with Naama Brosh and Adi Yair, curated the exhibit.
“Paisley, A Princely Pattern” shows examples of those early Persian paisley patterns in tapestries, shawls and fabrics, many of which come from the permanent collection of the museum’s founder, Vera Bryce Salomons. The shawls had been kept in the museum’s vault for the past 40 years and are now being displayed for the first time.
As paisley patterns migrated from Iran to Turkey, along the way they entered the Jewish communities of the Islamic world, where they were etched and drawn in Judaica and art, including ceremonial silver kiddush cups, brocade yarmulkes and dresses, along with wedding contracts, a rabbi’s turban and the ornate inner lining of a Torah scroll casing — all displayed in the exhibit.
“Those are paisley images that touch the Torah scroll, and that’s not by accident,” said Sharoni. “The Jews saw it as special and holy.”
The motif eventually spread to Europe, where it became popular in fabrics and designs, thanks in part to fashion-forward figures such as Empress Josephine, the first wife of military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who used it often in her clothing.
It was in Paisley Forest of Scotland, a textiles town, that the teardrop shape started being woven into everyday fabrics, becoming known as the present paisley design. Then, decades later, in the 1960s and 1970s, paisley became the leitmotif of the psychedelic rock ‘n roll movement.
Curator Adi Yair, a fashion designer and weaver, brings those later elements of paisley’s history to the exhibit, with contemporary art and fashion that exhibit the motif in fabrics as well as works of art.
She demonstrates the paisley image in Israeli photographs and paintings, including a calligraphed mat that demonstrates the secret language used by Jewish Iranians and mimics the paisley-decorated rugs once woven in Iran.
There’s a rock ‘n roll corner as well, with vibrant purple paisley wallpaper designed by Britain’s Patrick Moriarty in homage to Prince’s “Paisley Park” album.
The corner shows paisley dominating the music industry. The Beatles brought paisley back to Britain from a stint in India, while other rock ‘n rollers, including Jimi Hendrix, Israel’s Arik Einstein and later Prince, helped spread the paisley motif as a symbol of pop culture.
The final portion of the exhibit moves into paisley as a classic bohemian print, in fashion and on the paisley-decorated bandanna — first a symbol for workers, and then the flag of the disenfranchised, such as rapper Snoop Dogg and rap collective the Wu-Tang Clan.
Paisley-decorated outfits from Israeli designers Hana Laszlo and Dorit Bar Or, as well as Iranian-British designer Paria Farzaneh and others, show how paisley is featured in all kinds of textiles and designs throughout the last decades.
“If you ask someone what paisley is,” said Sharoni, “they can’t always describe it.
“But when you show them, they recognize it immediately.”
“Paisley, A Princely Pattern” will be on display at Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art through April 2023.
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