A "tasteless" history of the Paisley pattern

As part of our decolonisation series, we take a closer look at the paisley pattern. Suchitra explores the historic critique of the revered Indian shawl and its British imitations.

Written by: Suchitra Choudhury

The story of shawls in Britain is a fascinating one. Shawls were commonly used for protection against the weather, but the advent of the Cashmere variety from India transformed this humble garment into a fashionable accessory. From the late eighteenth century, manufacturers in Britain also started producing Cashmere-style imitations, which came to be widely known as Paisley shawls.

Shawls from India were much admired for their delicate and skilful designs. For instance, the influential design theorist Owen Jones, examining the role of colour in architecture, observed in Grammar of Ornament (1856) that for an attractive display, it was important that:

“[E]ach ornament should be softly and not harshly defined, that coloured objects viewed at a distance should present a neutralized bloom, that nearer approach should exhibit the beautiful details, and that a close inspection should divulge the means whereby these effects are produced. In this, the Indian carries out the same principle of surface decoration that we find in the architecture of the Arabs and Moors. The ornament in the spandrel of a Moorish arch and in an Indian shawl are constructed on precisely the same principles.”

Similarly, Matthew Digby Wyatt, well-known author of The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century (1851), also highlighted the “gorgeous colour and elaborate execution” of the Indian shawl, hailing it as “one of the highest orders of art-manufacture.” In one of his lectures, he also claimed that textile art had “reached its utmost complication of manufacture in the Cashmere shawl … it seems almost inconceivable that human patience could ever have produced a thing so complicated so minute, and yet so entirely harmonious and graceful.”

The imported shawl’s signature pinecone pattern (which was called the “Cashmere shawl design” before Paisley took over the name) was considered to be evocative and powerful. Yet, quite remarkably, the imitation of these designs on Paisley shawls came to be almost reviled in artistic discussions. For example, a report published in the well-respected Journal of Design and Manufactures in 1851 observed that the “tendency to substitute inferior imitations for the superior realities” formed one of the “evils which so darken our manufacturing position and prospects.” The author further suggested that the “struggle … to produce a sham Cachmere or Norwich shawl for a few shillings, and thus placard the backs of the female population with a sort of material falsehood” was nothing short of an aesthetic nuisance.

There was actually an important background to this sort of bias and prejudice. From the 1840s onwards, it was increasingly noted that British industrial manufactures were sturdy, but they were also largely devoid of any artistic excellence. It was the sheer strength of such views that the enabled the government to set up a series of “Schools of Design” to instil a sense of art into the manufacturing communities all across the country. Interestingly, there is evidence that manufacturers in Norwich and Paisley (places well-known for the production of Indian-styled shawls) found it difficult to combine the imperatives of “high art” with the interests of trade.

The design schools also led to another consequence. The Department of Practical Art considered that while art education for manufacturers was important, it was equally necessary to improve and revise the consumer’s taste. Accordingly, and after much deliberation, the Museum of Ornamental Art was instituted in London to elevate the damaged palate of the British public.

Unfortunately, the move did not go down particularly well. A scathing satire appeared in the popular magazine Household Words (1852) that frankly laughed at the governmental project. Authored by Henry Morley, it described the experience of an ordinary man, Mr Crumpet, who visits the “Museum of Horrors” on a pleasant day, only to be shocked to find the very things he uses everyday put up as examples of bad design.

The discussion of shawls forms an important part of the satire. At one point, Mr Crumpet offers to educate his friend Martin Frippy about the quality and value of Indian shawls:

“Why does a lady look so well under an Indian shawl? Because the worker of the Indian pattern, however badly he may have drawn his design, has harmonised its parts, chosen his tints well, and selected the right quantity of each; his design has been to produce such a harmony of colour as his pure instinct has felt … Such a shawl is only seen to fresh advantage when it hangs in drapery, and gains new grace by following the movements of the body.”

Crumpet here sarcastically mimics the common arguments for the Indian shawl: its superb drape and the subtle harmony of colours, as emphasised by Owen Jones, Mathew Digby Wyatt and others. Writing in this tone, Morley actually sought to emphasise that what was being projected as good design by the government was, in fact, situated at a far distance from the common people’s true likes and dislikes.

In an ironic gesture in the fiction, Crumpet then pointed to a person in an imitation shawl:

“But just look at that shawl upon that lady’s back as she walks now before us. What a vile discord of colours, and observe how the pattern is broken up into a jumble by the folds that interrupt it. If we are to see the pattern of that shawl, she should carry it on her back spread out quite flat and nailed on a square board, making a sort of tortoise of herself; but indeed I am sure the pattern is not worth displaying.”

Morley’s account of the imitation shawl was a satire against design reforms. But as we can see, it also drew substantially from a rhetoric of class: the terms “vile” and “discordant,” for instance, clearly repeated widely prevalent stereotypes of working-class life.

Discussing the idea of social distinction, the famous cultural critic Pierre Bourdieu has remarked, “taste is first and foremost distaste, disgust and visceral intolerance of the taste of others.” Does this outlook and logic also influence our responses to Cashmere/Paisley shawls today?

As we invite you to join us on the journey of decolonising our museum, we want to explain how we’re doing it and why it’s vital. Read about the start of this project here or follow #DecoloniseSDG on Twitter.