Wednesday, November 16, 2011


A lozenge is not a paisley.  The background resembles
the design of golden Buccellati jewelry.

If readers would return to the initial entry in the Paisley Diaries blog, they would find me, a Detroit child, disappointed at not receiving an answer from grown-ups as to the meaning of paisley.

Now I am a teenager, who like many budding fashionistas, spends free time roaming though stores. My store of choice is what Life magazine once called one of the largest stores in the United States and if measuring sales volume, the downtown store was a  larger producer than Macy's 34th Street if one didn't count the sales of liquor that Macy's offered.

J. L. Hudson existed in two separate side-by-side buildings that extended from 1206 Woodward Avenue to Farmer Street, buildings with 12 huge upstairs selling floors plus a mezzanine and two basement floors and was so beautifully built, they had trouble demolishing it when downtown Detroit almost closed down. (Detroit is on the move right now to reverse that trend). The store was my museum, my school, my refuge. And after visiting the basement and fashion floors, I always ended up in the fabric department, spending hours walking among the rows and rows of fascinating bolts. I knew I would never be handy enough to sew but if the price were right, I could bring fabric and ideas home to my mother.

It is the late 50s and paisley is fashion, so are scarves called "smoke rings". I bought a small piece of a beautiful print that I thought might be a paisley, an ornamental motif against a background of overlapping gold circles against green. Yes, my mother turned it into a smoke ring in about five minutes.

It was folded away for so long and seemed to allude finding but as I began working on this blog, it presented itself. I was shocked to find that it was not a paisley at all! Where was the teardrop shape? the little tip at the top? Where was the point? It has been suggested that it might be called a lozenge with multifoil background decoration and that the design tend to resemble Buccellati jewelry.

If there were pieces of Buccellati jewelry in Hudson's Fine Jewelry department, I never found them but the concept is correct. There is an over-the-top richness of mid-eastern design to my smoke ring. Buccellati, the Milanese family company grew up from its silversmith days of 1750 to the rich-lady sophistication of 1919 when Mario Buccellati opened his first jewelry stores. The characteristic look was intricate, over-the-top gold workings, the king's ransom kind. And so like the Italian eye to love that richness.

So, although I may never own a Buccellati bracelet, I do have yet another treasure from Hudson's and my mother. No quite a paisley, but this is not the end of the story. JP

Friday, October 21, 2011


Ralph Lauren bedding design in traditional paisley-and-stripe pattern.
From the collection of Deanna Littell.

The 80's was an exciting time in the New York design world.  I had been doing stories on home furnishings, particularly the very profitable bedding area and was invited to attend a press opening of the new Ralph Lauren licensing program featuring the J.P. Stevens collection.

I remember the exhibit began with a small, token alcove that displayed  Ralph Lauren's denims and western look fashions for men and women.  The spotlight space  was reserved for a gigantic display of Ralph Lauren bedding towels and tablecloths by J.P.Stevens, finished off with RL china and stemware.  I can't remember if there was wall- and floor-covering at this time, but I do remember smiling at what I called "the 25 shades of white" displayed  in the Ralph Lauren paint collection. We all left with a paint color chart.  With the ignorance of a civilian, I didn't understand that there would be an on-going market for home stylists who indeed could tell the difference between Navajo and Nantucket white.

But most importantly,  I didn't have the foresight to appreciate that this underpinning of home licenses would turn Ralph Lauren into The Emperor. Well, someone else had that foresight!  Michael Gross in his book, Genuine Authentic:  The Real Life of Ralph Lauren credits Marvin Traub, then president of Bloomingdale's and a man who started his career in home furnishings, for advising the designer to develop the "unprecedented yet classic concept".  

Lauren was already hooked on the rich-uncle look of the well-worn Persian carpet against the hardwood floor, the fat paisley damask pillows on the sofa.  Why not paisley bedding, table linens, even for heaven's sakes, bath towel sets?

That began three decades of beautiful, affordable paisley designs for the home.  We are showing the paisley and stripe motif, similar to one that would be used on classic Kerman shawls from Persia. Gross also points out that the home collection didn't turn a profit until another six years.  At the book's writing in 2003, Gross estimates that Lauren's Home line had been doing "a couple hundred million dollars in annual volume". JP

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


A page from the 7th century Book of Durrow.
Note the paisley-like motifs that help support the circles.

Detail of embroidered Mass vestment from the Cathedral
at Loughea, built 1897-1903.

Since prehistoric times, it seems that the people of Ireland have been drawn to the visual power of circles and concentric shapes. Stone circles appear to have been dated there to the Bronze Age. Early Christian manuscripts are concentric super stars with illumination ranging from the long, skinny snake-like forms of St. Patrick's least-favorite animals to closely-knotted forms that work so well with the monk's calligraphy.  The Book of Kells of the 9th century is one best-known examples of this.

Although not in the center spotlight, paisley-like forms were generated as an occasional counterbalance to tightly-locked circular forms, see the page from the 7th century Book of Durrow.

The motif, called "boteh" in Persia and "buti" in India, owes its full formation to the leadership of Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) in the Kashmir valley of perfect goats, textile-dying conditions and master shawl weavers.

Throughout 19th century Europe, the vestments of Roman Catholic priests worn for Mass  often featured the motif, although there were some earlier evidences as well.  Here is an example from the Cathedral at Loughrea county, Galway, built 1897-1903.   Center is a trefoil paisley-like motif that most likely references the Trinity.  At the secondary circles, naturalistic ears of rye.  The outermost circles show the characteristic Celtic knotted motifs. JP

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Pages from the workbook of Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979)

Gentle teardrop motif in a textile pattern by Delaunay.
As with all textiles, it probably came in a number of color-ways.

Sonia Delaunay was a wonderful French artist whose modern designs in fabric for fashion and home decor were given an exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York, this past spring-summer. 

She is not particularly known for paisley design but this parade-rest teardrop pattern of hers is a treat and might remind one of the "buti" pattern in India where miniatures of the  motif  are repeated in rows.  In India, "buta" is used to describe the larger paisley. This larger paisley at times decorates the borders of a rectangular shawl while the rows of "buti" line up in the center portion.

Delaunay has explained that her repetition of motif was inspired by the quilting she had seen as a child in the houses of Russian peasants. However, motif repetition appears to be a very human experience in a variety of cultures.

The same New York summer that Delaunay's design patterns were on exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, over on Fifth Avenue the work of  her famous husband Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) was part of a Guggenheim exhibit, "The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918." Both Delaunays spent time focusing on their exploration of juxtaposed color and color's tone and depth (Orphism.)   Included in the Guggenheim exhibit was Robert Delaunay's brilliant Orphist-Cubist-Expressionist Eiffel Tower series. JP

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Departing for the Promenade/Will You Go Out With Me, Fido?
by Alfred Stevens, 1859, Philadelphia Museum.

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), Belgian by birth, but Parisian by adoption, might be known as “the painter of paisley. He delighted in depicting modern women in fashionable contemporary dresses and elegant interiors. It may be difficult for us today to appreciate the originality of the genre Stevens invented for himself because he had a host of imitators. As his work was popular with American clients, many of his best works are to be found in museums in the United States.

In Departing for the Promenade, also known as Will you go out with me, Fido? (1859, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The W.P. Wilstach Collection, bequest of Anna H. Wilstach, 1893), a charming, dark-haired young woman is opening the door, but turns back towards the tiny white lap dog that follows at her feet. Over her dark velvet gown the graceful folds of a magnificent paisley shawl draw our attention. Stevens shows us exactly with what pretty gestures and elegant nonchalance this most prized of fashionable accessories was worn. The complex pattern of the shawl is contrasted with the strict geometry of the paneled wall and door. This bright, brilliantly patterned textile becomes the focus of the painting and a metaphor for the palette of colors with which the artist creates his illusions.

For Stevens, the eclipse of the paisley shawl must have been a melancholy turning point, depriving him of a motif he had made his own. For us, today, his paintings offer a vivid demonstration of the glamour of these colorful feminine garments that brought a note of oriental exoticism to the streets and salons of Paris during the heyday of the Second Empire.

Joan T. Rosasco, Ph.D.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Famous fashion model/actress Marisa Berenson  sits pretty in the most
opulent silk paisley of many a decade. This full page is part of a New York
fashion report from Vogue Magazine, September 1967.

When the award-winning designer, Deanna Littell, was completing high school and dreaming of the future,  she was torn between two loves, ballet and fashion design.  It was the time of the great auction of art and design from the Ballet Russe, and she reveled in the auction catalog with its photos of the work of Leon Bakst, the genius dance set and costume designer.  Often Bakst's work was energized by exotic paisley and Russian motifs. Littell gradually saw how her love of design, dance and music might merge.  Parson's rather than the New York City Ballet was her next stop before becoming a New York fashion designer.

Although Littell worked in all fabrics, all colors and prints, she began one of her first notable success stories with the launch of the first Bendel's Studio Collection under the astute retail leadership of store president Gerry Stutz and studio director, Jean Rosenberg. The collection was meant to be of-the-minute and limited to small quantities to be sold exclusively at the legendary West 57th Street store.  Littell made her debut as Stutz's solo designer with her Rich Peasant fall collection.  Leading the collection, this evening coat inventively made of rolls of silk patterns that a local silk company had meant to cut up for scarves.  It looked like something a modern princess would wear and was priced at $1,250. Today it would be a bargain at $12,000.

Littell explains:  " I loved the prints because they were large, dramatic, romantic. They reminded me of Russian  babushka prints and I wanted to quilt them, outlining the motifs in trapunto stitching and then have them hand embroidered in jewel-colored and gold beads." 

She remembers that the launch party that was a "Happening" at fashion photographer Milton Greene's studio which is what late 60s people did before today's invention of the flash mob.  The evening coat model for the Happening also wore paisley boots of the same fabric designed by Jerry Miller of the Miller Shoe salon, also at Bendel's.

Acceptance of the collection by the press and customers was sensational.   Littell was off and dancing in a new rarefied world. Today, she is a fine jewelry designer with Deanna Littell's Charm School.   JP

Monday, July 25, 2011


Madame Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, 
later Princesse de Bénévent (née Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835)
by François Gérard, called Baron Gérard.

To the world of Western fashion, the ‘cachemire’ motif is synonymous with Napoléon Bonaparte’s reign and the stylish excesses of his first empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais.

Once a personal gift to his love –and a former loot from his failed Egyptian campaign– the cachemire shawl and motif arose as one and the same as the fashion item of the day, and coincidently the generational “it” sartorial accessory throughout much of the 19th century.

To view its importance on Napoléon’s court, go see the life-size portrait of Madame Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, later Princesse de Bénévent, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In this official portrait painted by Baron Gérard, she echoes herself as another Joséphine, having gone as far as copying one of the empress’ court dresses down to the buttoned shoulder detail. From the walls to the floor-treatments to the fireplace to the Klismos chair by Jacob frères, the décor screams Percier-Fontaine’s delft hand on the Napoleonic style.

The icing on this cake for paisley enthusiasts is the nonchalantly place scarf on the fashionable chair. The shawl came from India, cost way more than its weight –and wait– in gold. It was also a political coup considering the enforced embargo against England. She enjoyed one, others couldn’t!

Unbeknownst to many, Madame Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was born Noël-Catherine Verlée in India. She, of all people, understood too well the motif’s multifaceted cultural importance from its origin in the ‘Orient’ down to the French court. 

Stéphane Houy-Towner
Creative Fashion Consultant and Director of Inside Fur Blog Development and Content.

Friday, July 15, 2011


French silk scarf from the Collection of Deanna Littell

When my mother's aunt Flora came from Drayton Plains to visit us in Detroit one cold fall, she forgot to pack a head scarf.  The four of us, my father staying in the parked car, made the nearest Montgomery Ward's our one-stop shop for a new scarf.

Flora, a no-fuss-woman,  expertly reached into the counter's neat pile of 36-inch silk squares and fished out a print, shook it open, then refolded it into a triangle and tied the ends under her chin,  "A paisley is always good", she explained when paying for it.

"What is a paisley?" I wanted to know. I have no idea how old I was, maybe 9 and as usual, when I asked a question of adults I walked into a bubble of empty, airless silence. No one ever acknowledged or answered, so I discovered that the best route was to pretend it didn't matter.  But obviously, it really did.

Decades later, I found out that Flora's father, François, was from Farbersviller, a small commune in the Lorraine region of France and that Lorraine's twin region, Alsace, was famous for the Mulhouse commune where some of the world's most uniquely beautiful paisley (cachemire) motifs were printed onto fabric. Perhaps one day in a Lorraine market of the mid 19th century, Flora's grandmother picked out a Mulhouse fabric and contemplated turning it into an apron to wear over her Sunday skirt.  She may have also explained: "Le cachemire est toujours un bon choix." JP