It’s no secret that the Junior High bully of global recession has given this once-proud country of ours an atomic wedgie. Stocks are down. Deficits are up. Discretionary spending and consumer confidence are lower than a basset hound’s ballsack. Even those of us in the high-modulus, monocoque tower of the cyclo-industrial complex have felt the pinch. 80mm full-carbon tubular training wheelsets are being passed over in favor of the more economical 50mm versions. High-priced compression socks languish on bike shop shelves as cash-strapped Cat 3 racers root through the dumpsters behind TJ Maxx, desperate to claim that last, mythical ovum of L’eggs brand hosiery.
But the people of our brave republic are nothing if not adaptable. Challenge us, and we will cry out for distraction. Give us hardship, and we will create reality shows. And reintroduce the McRib. When the Great Depression grabbed us by the southern extensions, we turned to talking pictures. When the recession of the 80’s took the wind out of our coke-fueled sails, we turned to the Dukes of Hazzard, and collectively basked in the solace of their folksy, ‘shine-running shenanigans.
Caught as we are in the economic downturn of the twenty-tweens, JVA would love to lull our poverty-addled brains to sleep with reruns of Small Wonder. Alas, we are contractually bound to keep our minds as sharp as aged Wisconsin cheddar. Plus, the Admiral pawned his TV last May (there was a special on Midori at Costco) and no one else has the gumption to get off their paisley ASSES and get one of those digital converter thingies for their ten-year old TVs. Not like it matters. Given the sheer number and volume of strippers I’ve seen dance on top of Truman Compote’s vintage RCA, I’m sure that by the time those antique vacuum tubes even got up to operating temperature it would smell so much like vanilla and daddy issues that I wouldn’t even be in the mood to watch Hardcastle & McCormick at all anymore.
Thus deprived of our access to sweet, sweet brain candy, JVA has turned to the only viable distraction left to us: PBS on the Internets.
Since the early 1970s, Public Broadcasting has engorged itself on the blood of American taxpayers, quietly building a global, Pinko empire with such Anarcho-Communists staples as Sit and Be Fit, Antiques Road Show, and Sewing With Nancy.
It was during one such PBS-trogen fest, that we saw the best. Thing. Ever:
Sister Wendy Beckett.
Part nun. Part art historian. All incisor. Sister Wendy is one bad habit JVA just can’t break. Season Four was by far her most ambitious, with such groundbreaking episodes as: “If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It”, “More Monet, More Problems” and “Fuck You and the Horse You Rodin On.” Rumor around the watercooler is that next season Sister Wendy and Norm Abram from New Yankee Workshop will be dropping a sick collabo where they build a Nantucket credenza together. No tools, no nails. All the woodwork will be done with Sister Wendy’s chompers, and all the pieces expertly assembled using nothing but a pouch of Big League Chew. If that don’t give you a collaboner, nothing will.
Watching Sister Wendy drop art historical knowledge like so many f-bombs, we were inspired. Why not use our 15 seconds of fame to educate our readers on a subject near and dear to our black hearts: Our beloved paisley.
Researchers were dispatched. Wikipedia entries were perused. Adjunct professors in pre-Islamic art were stalked. What follows is the culmination of almost an hour of painstaking research. We hope that in sharing what we’ve learned we can foster a deeper appreciation for that chief of motifs, that king of squiggly things, that Danny Glover of duvet covers: Paisley.
JVA is pleased as punch to present, for your collective edification…
Paisley Through the Ages: A JVA Primer
The Early Years: Back That ZoroAster Up.
As dualistic religious movements go, Zoroastrianists get both the long and the short end of the stick. Sure, they’re the last to be called at graduation, but on the Scrabble board the Z-strians can easily pick up a cool 63 points, especially if they get nasty with a triple letter score. Try that with Marcionism.
We owe many debts to the Z-boyz and girlz: The idea of an immortal soul, the God v. Satan dichotomy, the Miata convertible, and the creation of that beautiful, spermatozoid motif we know as paisley.
Known in Persian as the boteh jegheh, this stylized swirl emerged during the Sassanid Dynasty in the 3rdcentury B.C.E., and is thought to depict the cypress tree, an important Zoroastrian symbol of life and eternity. Interestingly, in Persian culture the cypress hill on which the tree grows symbolizes one who is both insane in the membrane and insane in the brain.
As Persian art and culture spread, so did the sexy boteh. It features prominently in Hindu and Tamil art, where it is often associated with the mango.
Bonus fact: Inside every mango you can find a yellow sasquatch toe.
If It’s Not Scottish It’s Crap: Paisley Goes Euro
Fast forward to the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company decided to diversify their proven “Slaves, Silk and Salted Herring” business and began exporting Indian textiles to Europe. They were Wal-Martian before Wal-Mart was Wal-Mart. And the shit blew up. Those pattern-hungry Euros couldn’t get enough of that South Asian flavour. The Baltic States, ever the fashion-forward types, were particularly fervent in their adoption of the paisley motif. In Azerbaijan paisley was thought to have protective powers, and was used to ward off evil demons. Incidentally, it also warded off sexy ladies.
In response to this demand, European textile factories starting churning out the design like so much mango butter-scented embrocation. By the 19th century the pattern was so popular that entire towns based their economy on its production. The Scottish town of Paisley was one such center. So prolific was this wee burgh in the production of Persian-style textiles that the name of Paisley became synonymous with the boteh motif. Probably for the best. The Dead Milkmen wouldn’t have sold near as many copies of Eat Your Boteh Jegheh.
Bonus Fact: “Paisley” is Gaelic for “clearing wood.” In modern English this translates as, “picturing Barbara Bush naked.”
Of Pears and Pickles: Paisley = NSFW
In this high-tech world of chat rooms, Myspaces, and hamster dances there is one constant: If it exists, someone out there will make it nasty (see also: Rule 34). Paisley is no exception. As the motif became more ubiquitous, the smut-mongers began to adapt the already sensual squiggle to their lascivious purposes. I’m talking, of course, about quilters.
Not content with their running stitches and tacking, American and British quilters had to sully the lily-white reputation of the paisley with their filthy, dirty sex talk. To the American traditionalist quilters, the paisley was the “Persian Pickle.” To the Brits, it was the “Welsh Pear.” Not coincidentally, a “friend” told me that The Persian Pickle is the name of an Iranian rent boy service based out of Northwest Portland, while The Welsh Pear is the name of an all-nude male revue comprised entirely of Tom Jones impersonators. Hey, quilters. This is a family show. Let’s keep it clean.
Bonus Fact: The novel, The Persian Pickle Club, by Sandra Dallas, is a playful romp set in Depression-era Kansas. Publisher’s Weekly calls it, “….a sleeper….boredom….country living….chickens….coveted paisley.” Something to consider when the Ambien runs dry.
The Modern Years: Paisley Is All Groweds-Up
The last century saw paisley infiltrate every facet of popular culture. Thanks in part to the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s, paisley was literally everywhere. Like I can see them crawling on me RIGHT NOW! They’re on the walls, man! They trying to eat my grilled cheese sandwich! They’re like some crazyfucking insatiable amoeba-monster from the planet Boteh!
Okay. Deep breaths….Let me just put on some Allman Brothers. I’ll be fine. Just got to relax.
Where was I? Oh yeah. Hippies. The counter-culture helped bring paisley into the mainstream. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a paisley-festooned doodad, scarf, or washable feminine hygiene product. Even the usually staid, reserved music industry hopped on the paisley minibus. Behold the 1968 Fender Telecaster:
I get flashbacks just looking at that shit.
So influential was paisley in 20th century music that famed tongue-gymnast and Apollonia-seducer, (The Artist Formerly Known As) Prince, named both his record label and recording studio Paisley Park. If that’s not a glowing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
Paisley’s impact on music was not confined to our diminutive Purple Rainman. Country music, punk rock, even skate rock all bear the indelible imprint of the Persian pickle. West Virginia’s native son, Brad Paisley, was so enamored with the motif that he chose to be born to parents with a paisley-centric surname. Chapeau, sir. That is dedication. He also wrote a song called “Whiskey Lullaby”, which is what I call singing to my neighbors at full volume after my “Jack Daniels bedtime story.”
Those pioneers of satire-punk, The Dead Milkmen, named their 1986 album Eat Your Paisley, introducing thousands of unimpressed parents to such gems as, “Beach Party Vietnam” and “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies.” As a side note, if there are any cryptozoologists out there who can actually get a hold of a Thing That Only Eats Hippies, give me a shout. We got us a bit of an infestation here in Oregon, and could really use a hand. Call me.
Let us not forget the most important use of paisley in music iconography. I’m talking, of course, about our spiritual fathers: JFA.
Not content with simply creating the most hard-driving skate punk of the 1980’s, Jody Foster’s Army also practiced what they preached, shredding harder than an Enron accountant before an independent audit. Back when I was in short pants, the most coveted skate deck was the JFA pink paisley number. It oozed radness, and declared to the world, “I may be 13 and acne-ridden, and the only thing I’ve humped are pillows, but I am confident enough in my burgeoning masculinity to ride a pink skateboard. If you need me I’ll be in the corner pitching a trouser tent over my Boris Vallejo collection.”
This co-mingling of paisley and devil music did not escape the ever-vigilant eyes and ears of the religious right. Paisley has the singular distinction of being the only design motif to be featured on both a Laura Ashley duvet cover and demonbuster.com. According to this exhaustively researched piece, contact with paisley may be dangerous to your immortal soul because of paisley’s association with: Catholics, the country of India, goat hair, prayer rugs, Jesuits, cults, seers, and magicians. Great. I guess this means that if the Republicans take the White House my stock in Indian-made, cashmere “magic fingers” condoms is going to take a huge hit.
Fashion Goes in (bi)Cycles: A Look Forward
Which brings us to today. Despite the valiant efforts of folks like demonbuster.com, paisley remains a ubiquitous motif. In fact, our favorite sepia-toned douchemongers and purveyors of all things epic, Rapha, have chosen the noble boteh as the pattern of choice for their game-changing bike hanky. Seen below, this high-performance silk scarf is, according to their lispy, J. Peterman-esque copy, “…designed to insulate the neck whilst cycling.”
Bonus PRO tip: Save $80 plus shipping. Grow a neckbeard.
In the immortal words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat Mrs. Spangler’s 8th grade history class.”
We all owe a debt to those who have come before. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and all creative enterprises are derivative in some respects. All we can do is give credit where it is due, pay homage to our cultural heritage, and acknowledge our shared origins. That, and just ride our fucking bikes.