A Hidden History of the World through Patterns

Look at your outfit and think for a moment what it may say about you. Maybe you’re telling the world you’re confident, interesting, smart, and funny (which I’m sure is all very true) but you might be telling a more interesting story than you give yourself credit for. Now think for a moment what your outfit might say about humanity and its story, and how the patterns that adorn your shirt, skirt, or socks got there in the first place, and what they may have signified for millions of people throughout history.

While patterns themselves may only change a little over time, their meanings can change drastically as new associations are made for them. This is a phenomenon we see constantly with the meanings of identical patterns changing with associations. Take for example the Celtic cross, which has been an important symbol in Christian Celtic cultures for well over a thousand years and is still commonly seen today in Celtic countries. However, it, like many other symbols, has become appropriated by movements that most would rather not be associated with, in this case being popularly used by the Ku Klux Klan and being listed by the ADL as a hate symbol. This is a natural evolution that we see in many symbols, including the ones we wear, which often hide darker or more interesting associations than we might initially imagine.

From Persia to Paisley: The Journey of a Pattern

There is perhaps no better example that demonstrates the radical journeys patterns make than paisley. The timeframe of the origins of the pear-shaped design is disputed, with some saying it began in ancient Iran during the Sassanid Dynasty (2,200 BCE – 300 CE) while others maintain it began as a Zoroastrian symbol in around the 5th century BCE.


Originally known as buta (meaning shrub or bush in Persian), this motif is believed to perhaps be a cypress tree, which is a Zoroastrian symbol for life. As Persian, Zoroastrian, and subsequently Islamic culture spread over the millennia, so too did buta, which began to appear in mosques, as well as in designs in Greece and Egypt in the 15th century. When Persian culture spread into India in the 16th century with the expansion of the Mughal Empire, many Persian cultural elements such as the sacred buta motif were introduced into the Indian subcontinent.


As European powers started to trade more with India, the buta motif spread once again, taking on exotic associations for Europeans eager to buy fashionable Indian shawls starting in the 17th century.
Seen as an exotic and auspicious symbol throughout Europe, as the fascination with Indian goods increased, so too did the desire for Indian fabrics and designs, none more so than buta. So great was the clamor for buta designs in Europe that Indian importers could no longer meet demands and production began throughout Europe, chiefly in the United Kingdom and France.

The pattern remained popular in much of Europe until the late 19th century when it started to fall out of fashion in favor of newer designs. However, for European audiences, it remained a symbol of the exotic orient, a fascination that would be revived in the 1960s with Beatlemania and the new-found appreciation of Indian cultural exports.


To this day, the pattern remains an exotic motif for European and North American audiences, and a symbol of lingering importance for the Zoroastrian faith, not to mention Persian and Indian cultures. This is for good reason, considering the pattern’s long history and its tale of a journey from a symbol of one of the world’s oldest religions, to the expansion of the Persian Empire and culture, Indo-European trade, the Industrial Revolution, and the 1960s’ obsession with Indian designs, resulting in an enduring exotic legacy that remains popular to this day.

The Devil Wears Stripes

Despite being used in fashion for thousands of years, throughout much of European history, horizontal stripes were once thought of as sinister, with medieval Europeans finding the inability to tell background from foreground disturbing. Some believe that this disdain for stripes was also due to the Bible banning people from wearing “a garment made of two kinds of material.” Stripes were consequently used to identify outcasts in medieval society, those ostracized and villainized by the majority.


While the Breton shirt today may be inseparable from our stereotypes of French fashion, in the While the Breton shirt today may be inseparable from our stereotypes of French fashion, in the same country hundreds of years earlier, such black-and-white-striped garments were once only typically worn by the untouchables, the criminals, the hangmen, prostitutes, prisoners and, yes, even the clowns.


While it may sound amusing to modern ears, stripes were often no laughing matter at the time. After Pope Boniface VIII banned striped clothing of any sort in 1295, in France, a country that would become famous for its striped shirts, a cobbler was even sentenced to death in 1310 for wearing stripes.


These villainous associations with stripes continued throughout much of European and American history, with prisoners throughout the Western world traditionally being dressed in striped clothing to mark them as criminals. Think of the stereotypical robber dressed in stripes to indicate their unpleasant status, with mariners at the margins of society wearing them too, perhaps even leading to the modern association between striped clothing and seafaring.


As with paisley and all the other patterns mentioned in this piece, the meanings and symbols of stripes changed. While it is true that the surprisingly negative associations with stripes are evident in the modern world, most notably perhaps in prison uniforms, they are still a popular design in fashion.
By the 16th century, the hatred of stripes began to fade, and they took on a new meaning, one of freedom, revolution, and republicanism. Take a good look at the flags of the world and you will notice just how many countries use a tricolor. This association with revolutionary liberty dates back to the Dutch in 1579, when they declared independence from Spain, founding the Dutch Republic. This led to subsequent adoptions of similar tricolor flags all over the world.


Of course, stripes have always also been used for attracting attention. From the warning stripes of wasps, snakes, and poisonous fish, to the beautiful plumage of birds of paradise, stripes play an important role in nature and it is no surprise that humans all around the world have learnt to copy them and at times even be superstitious of them.

The Trouble with Tartan

Tartan, sometimes mistakenly known as plaid, is an iconic pattern that tells a story surrounded by misunderstanding and myth. Even the name tartan tells a confusing story, and while the pattern we so associate with Scotland is known in Scottish Gaelic as breacan, tartan likely comes from the French word tartarin, meaning “Tartar cloth.”


This is ironic considering that paisley, a pattern that originated in the Middle East, is named after a town in Scotland, while tartan is potentially named after a group of people living in the Middle East. In fact, while tartan today refers to a crisscross pattern, it once referred to an unpatterned plain fabric. And that’s not the end of the surprisingly polemic design’s naming issues. Plaid, as tartan is sometimes referred to, actually refers to the tartan cloth rather than the pattern itself, coming from the Scottish Gaelic word plaide, meaning blanket. These large blankets were worn as the traditional male dress in the Gaelic Highlands of Scotland, similar to a toga.


While today many think of tartan patterns being based on clan, traditionally the colors and patterns used depended on availability of materials and mainly personal taste, with the idea of clan tartans being a more modern invention of a romanticized Scottish past. Indeed, much of what we associate with tartan is romanticized, including the kilt.


The short kilts of today, akin to a skirt, that have come to be a Scottish stereotype are actually not Scottish in origin at all. In the 1720s, an Englishman had the idea of separating the skirt of the traditional garment, which then spread in popularity throughout Scotland as a much more liberating alternative.


The early 18th century was a tumultuous time in Scotland, faced with uprisings to replace the king on the British throne, with much of the support coming from the kilt-clad Highlanders. In 1746, following a rebellion, such “Highland dress” was banned in Scotland. This coincided with the Highland clearances, where Gaelic Highland tenants were forcibly removed and sent to cities.


By the time the ban was lifted in 1782, Gaelic culture in the Scottish Highlands had been devastated, while cementing the kilt and tartan as symbols of Scottish pride, tradition, and resistance.


It was at this point that tartan became the national dress for all of Scotland, which grew incredibly popular after Scotland’s national bard Walter Scott organized King George IV’s visit to the country, the first king to do so in two centuries. Tartan was notably included as a Scottish symbol, with even the king wearing a tartan kilt.


In the 1840s, two English brothers claiming to be the heirs to the Scottish throne published books on the traditional tartans worn by different clans, making what are believed to be largely invented claims. These “traditional tartans,” however, came to be widely used in the tartan industry, with tartan sellers to this day listing them as official tartans for clans.


Wrapped up in romance, myth, and pageantry, official tartans were adopted by more families and organizations, including official tartans for the British royal family and military regiments. This tradition has continued to spread and, today, everyone from the New York Jets to the Papua New Guinean government has official tartans.

Plagues and Polka Dots

Like stripes, dots are a deceptively simple pattern with a unique story to tell that reveals a fascinating perspective into the development of superstitions and fashions. Dots are commonly used in cultures around the world, and from the bindi dots in India to Aboriginal Australian paintings of the Dreamtime, they are associated with a powerful sense of spiritualism.


Throughout much of European history, however, dots were taboo, linked with impurity and disease, understandably considering the dot-like pattern of illnesses like smallpox that ravaged medieval Europe. Oddly though, in the middle of the 19th century, dots underwent a revolution in Europe and as polka music swept the world, so too did polka dots.


So what exactly are polka dots? What have they got to do with polka? As with the most interesting topics in life, there isn’t one established answer and, to this day, etymologists argue about the origin of polka. Most theories about the etymology of polka dot seem to be related to polka music, which spread throughout the world in the 1840s as a dance and music craze. Polka music originated from Bohemia, which is part of modern-day Czechia, with půlka meaning “half” in Czech, perhaps a reference to the half steps taken in polka dance or half-tempo of the music.


Some etymologists argue that as the polka craze spread, polka became a word synonymous with “fun” and so polka dots simply meant fun dots. Considering the dotted pattern’s popularity in Central and Eastern Europe and this being the origin of the polka dance and music craze, it is possible that they were called polka dots to note that they were Central or Eastern European dots.


The “fun” qualities of the pattern led to it having somewhat childish associations, being commonly used in toys. The Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century also resulted in it being possible to easily manufacture clothing featuring the polka dot pattern. While it remained popular over the years to come, the polka dot and polka music underwent a wave of popularity during and following the Second World War, possibly due to the influx of Central European migrants into North America. Polka spread again throughout the USA and naturally so too did the polka dot, and as Frank Sinatra sang his first hit Polka Dots and Moonbeams in 1940, the pattern started to be incorporated by French designers like Christian Dior.

Over the 20th century, polka dots found themselves on the clothes of everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Minnie Mouse. Since then, the pattern seems to have acquired vintage characteristics for modern consumers, along with connotations of fun and innocence. This transformation of the pattern is a world apart from its original connotations in much of Europe

Cultural Appropriation and the Power of Patterns

As our associations with patterns have changed over the years, transforming from immoral to fashionable, sacred to vintage, banned to celebrated, this leads to the question of how our associations with patterns are going to change in the future. A fairly modern example of the changing perception of a pattern is shown through the Arabian keffiyeh headdress. Initially a style of headdress dating back to the Babylonians, in the 1930s, it became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. As a result, it took on political connotations, with supporters of Palestine around the world wearing them as a symbol of unity. The keffiyeh and its pattern then became fashionable everywhere from Japan to Europe as a statement of rebellion.


This popularity of the keffiyeh is one of many instances where accusations of cultural appropriation have been made. This is an issue that many seem to be becoming increasingly aware of and, considering the subject matter of this article, it raises interesting questions. Did Idi Amin culturally appropriate Scottish culture by wearing tartan? Did Kashmiris culturally appropriate Zoroastrianism by using paisley in their designs? Or are these signs of respect for the beauty and power that patterns have?


Meanings of patterns and symbols change as people and places change, along with what we value, what we want to express and which groups or movements co-opt them. Walk around Japan and you’ll notice swastikas being used as a symbol of Buddhist temples, yet in much of Europe, the swastika is completely banned for understandable reasons. The Japanese association with the swastika is one of an auspicious symbol linked to good luck, while in Germany, it is a dark reminder of some of the worst days in human history.


This article’s exploration of the evolution and interweaving of patterns is by no means exhaustive. From chintz to chinoiserie and patterned ponchos to leopard print, patterns around the world tell a story of struggle, morality, and change that unites us as people, while showing the majesty of everyday objects that risk being overlooked. ~

Heading Photo by Los Muertos Crew on Pexels.com
Luke Owain Boult
Luke Owain Boult

is a Welsh writer, editor, and translator. He studied for a BA in Japanese and Spanish at Cardiff University in Wales and has also studied at Valencia University, Spain, and Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan. After graduating, Luke became the award-winning editor of Buzz Magazine, Wales’ largest arts and culture magazine in 2015. Luke has a passion for the arts, language, writing, food, and travel and left Buzz to become a freelance writer, editor, and translator in 2017, following a digital nomad lifestyle with his fiancěe. He has since travelled extensively throughout Europe and Japan while translating books and games. Luke has written two novels and is currently working on his third. Email:lukeowain@gmail.com