From Zarathustra to British Aristocracy: The Paisley of Persia

Persian Paisley printed 'Termeh' fabric.

Resembling a teardrop, fashion’s famed Paisley motif earned its western name from the Scottish town of Paisley, a center for textiles where paisley designs were produced. The distinctive almond-shaped pattern has had a long and varied history involving luxurious Scottish shawls, sumptuous couture and the swinging sixties. But its Iranian origin is one of the earliest examples of philosophy and fashion merging, shaped by symbolism and identity, cultivated through art.

The ‘Boteh’ (Persian for shrub or cluster of leaves) is the visual combination of a spray of floral elements and a cypress tree. The Cypress is the Zoroastrian symbol of eternity and life. It is based on the idea that a tree is grounded in earth, but needs both heaven and earth to survive- therefore being a rare living-phenomenon coexisting harmoniously in both realms. The floral motif originates from the Sassanid dynasty (200-650 AD)- the last Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. Under the weight of the Arab invasion, the tree was pictured bent, symbolising resistance and strength under severe persecution of Zoroastrian beliefs under early Islamic reign.

Paisley by Pierre Balmain 1950 & Jil Sander SS12

Sages tell the story of Zarathustra, who brought the seeds of a heavenly tree from paradise to plant on earth. He planted a Cypress trees, that grew to amazing heights. After the Islamic invasion of Iran, the ruling Arabic Caliph “Al-Mutavakkal” heard of the tree. The description of its beauty and grandeur was so intense that the Caliph wished to see it, but unwilling to leave the throne, he ordered his governor to cut it down and bring back its trunk and branches. Master carpenters would then reassemble the pieces so he would be able to see the tree’s beauty up close. It is said that the tree was so massive in size that ten thousand sheep were able to rest in its shade, while the number of birds and wild animals living among its branches were impossible to be taken into account. Upon hearing the Caliph’s selfish intention to cut their beloved Cypress, Zoroastrians who revered the tree sacred begged and pleaded to the Caliph’s men asking for mercy, but their strenuous efforts were left in vain. When the beautiful Cypress of Zoroaster finally hit the ground, it created a shock-wave so intense that its tremors were felt from a far.

Although physically taken down, the memory of this celestial Zoroastrian tree grew stronger in the minds of Iranians with each passing day- becoming part of the Iranian identity and an early example of popular culture.

Decorative Boteh tiles on the walls of Golestan Palace, Qajar era

Painters painted the boteh with images of national heroes and Persian poets began to describe the stature of a woman’s beauty as “Cypress-like”, comparing her balanced poise, lithe motion and enchanting body to that of the cypress and whenever they spoke of truthfulness, valour, uprightness and youth, the cypress served as a model. Rug weavers threaded the symbol in bright knots of silk around its shape in Persian tapestry, while goldsmiths welded it in to jewellery from precious metals and stones, gracefully worn by women. Illustrators embellished sacred manuscripts with the boteh and women used it as embroideries in textiles to accentuate their body.

The decorative motif lived on and found its way to the Safavid Dynasty (1501 -736) and ultimately became a major textile pattern in Iran during the Qajar and Pahlavi Dynasties. From silverware, gold and glass, stone carving and architecture, woodwork and tiles, to silk rugs, textiles and garments, the Zoroastrian Cypress has lived on for centuries in the Persian subconscious. Resisting all forms of submission, bending to the ground and jumping back up with the passing of each storm, it became a symbol of freedom and free-thought that has remained the untainted spirit of Iranian people to this day.