PAISLEY hasn't been this hot since Queen Victoria put it on the fashion map over 100 years ago. The familiar pattern -- adapted from the shawls that every well-to-do 19th-century bride had in her trousseau -- has always been a quiet favorite. But now, suddenly, variations are turning up here, there, and everywhere, often giant-size and in rich new colorations. It's the print of the year. Nearly every designer has his or her paisley statement, whether it be expensive couture-class ensembles or t he affordable little silk squares. The ultimate may be the Bill Blass tailored suit. It looks like it's been crafted from carefully matched pieces of an antique paisley shawl, but the material is actually a fine new silk and wool upholstery fabric from Clarence House, a firm that caters to upper-echelon decorators. Also outstanding are the separates in Gloria Sachs's collection, done in pattern-on-pattern prints combining big-scale paisleys with tartans and cabbage roses in brilliant colors, often on a black background. Mrs. Sachs is her self a collector of old paisleys, and she researched authentic designs before having her fabrics specially woven in Italy.
The Sachs pieces are luxuries and the Blass suit costs the moon. But stores are already stocked with less pricey paisleys well within the working woman's range. Challis skirts and blouses, silky chemise styles or shirtdresses, and sweaters inset with paisley motifs are some of choices. The pattern appears in accessories of all sorts, too; it's even been used by costume jewelry maker Kenneth Jay Lane as a shape for sparkly earrings.
Besides wearing paisley from top to toe, it is possible to live with it and sleep with it, too, because the pas sion for paisley has swept the interior decorating world. A proliferation of new paisleys with which to cover chairs, sofas, walls, or window shades fills the sample books of various manufacturers of upholstery.
This, Ralph Lauren tells us, is as it should be. ``The crossover between how one lives and how one dresses is important today,'' the designer says. As good as his word, he has paisley riding shirts and evening robes in his women's fashion line for fall, and he includes four different pure-cotton paisleys in his Ralph Lauren Home Collection. The selection in his ``Elizabeth Paisley'' print is the most extensive. The pattern is available in sheets, pillowcases, and other bedding accessories as well as shower curtains, table linens, rugs, wallpaper, and fabrics by the yard, and it comes in burgundy or deep blue-green.
Some of the latest paisley wearables are shot with metallics, giving a feeling of the Raj influence that is beginning to permeate the fashion scene and is bound to reach its zenith this fall and winter when the ``Festival of India'' series of cultural exhibitions and performances will be touring the country.
The kinship between paisley and India is in fact a close one, although most people only associate the pattern with Paisley, the town in Scotland after which it is named. The town became the center of European production for thousands of shawls loomed from the early 1800s until 1886. Smaller versions of such industries in Edinburgh; Norwich, England; and Lyon, France, had started making similar shawls in the late 1700s.
These European silk and wool shawls, still prized when found today in antique markets and auction rooms, were done in imitation of the more delicate embroidered cashmeres from the Vale of Kashmir, which were the original paisleys. Although they are known to have an ancient lineage, exactly how and when they were first introduced to Europe is lost in the mists of history. According to textile scholars, the wives and mistresses of the Caesars are said to have worn the cashmere; besides Rome, the shawls re ached the courts of Persia, Russia, and China; Marco Polo is supposed to have brought several back on his first trek to the Orient.
But Kashmir shawls really began to circulate at the close of the 16th century, thanks to Akbar the Great, the Mogul emperor of India who promoted their production. Weavers were brought in from Persia, the shawls were exported more widely, and in time, Napoleon acquired one during his Egyptian campaign and presented it to Josephine on his return to Paris. It seems the Empress was simply delighted because eventually she owned hundreds more.
Then, increasingly a la mode, more of the shawls were copied and with the invention of the Jacquard loom, scores of machine-made versions of their intricate traceries issued forth from Scotland. After Queen Victoria took up paisleys, partly to publicize a thriving British industry, all women of fashion followed. Their daughters and grandchildren held on to the family paisleys. As heirlooms in America, the shawls have had the same staying power as quilts. There is almost an equal number of each of these saved objects in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Museum.
As far as the paisley motif itself, no one has pinned down its precise source. Described variously as a teardrop or a tipped cone, plant, or cypress shape, it appears often in early decorative arts of the Near East and Asia. But design influences between Kashmir and Europe became hopelessly mixed over the years and researchers think the Indian weavers picked up many floral motifs for their paisleys from illustrations in English herbal books.
Whatever the origin, paisley patterns -- and there are literally thousands of them -- have hardly ever been exactly alike. That is just as true of this season's revamped, rescaled, and recolored versions as it is of their old counterparts. So, with such a variety of choice, there has to be a paisley for everybody somewhere out there this fall.