The Origins of Psychedelic Style - Psych Week


By Tanya Silverman

Tibetan Monks creating a Mandala, a circular pattern with origins in Hinduism meant to represent the cosmos. Photo by Paolo Massa.

Psychedelic aesthetics have long influenced personal and decorative style, whether it be through the hanging of a trippy cyclical mandala tapestry in a worn-in dorm room or throwing a DIY tie-dye party for a crafty, crunchy birthday celebration.

While patterns and motifs like tie-dye, mandalas and paisleys hold hippie connotations, it’s common that wearers of these psychedelic styles, or people that notice them, are largely unaware of their greater cultural history. Most elements of psychedelic style stretch far beyond what was popularized during the American youth cultural movement in the 1960s.

Mandalas: An Intensive Buddhist Ritual

Colorful, swirling patterns that incorporate the mandala are often printed or woven throughout tapestries, or embroidered onto long, flowing skirts. With all of these crazy swirls, it is no surprise that the word “mandala” translates as “circle” in Sanskrit.

Most people do not know that, to Tibetan Buddhists, the mandala represents a sacred “container of essence,” which collects the energy of deities and universal forces. The mandala signifies a practice of initialization into the tantric ritual.

Bringing this concept into the physical reality that we can all see, Buddhist monks have a practice where they construct mandalas out of colored sand atop a large, flat platform. Prior to making one, these monks are required to study the necessary art and philosophy behind this sand sculpture, a process that could take years. Traditionally, four monks will begin constructing this piece from the center; they will then work outward, laying the sand very specifically, and tediously to form a square temple with four gates surrounded by concentric circles.

Creating a colored-sand mandala requires strict geometric accurateness, and this circular piece is also densely saturated with symbolic meaning. It includes things like a ring of fire for burning ignorance, a circle of eight graveyards of human consciousness and lotus leaves for spiritual rebirth. Comprehending all of this, journeying to the center of a mandala is a voyage “through the cosmos to the essence of reality.”

Upon completion, the sand mandala is then deliberately destroyed, and its debris are poured into a nearby stream. Even after all of the intensive study and consideration required to create the sand mandala, the conclusion of this ritualistic practice stays true to the central Buddhist principle: all things are impermanent.

Tie-Dye: Origins from Many Places and Times

Tie-dye has been a consistent element of psychedelic style for decades. During the 1960s, Rit Dye went on a marketing campaign in Greenwich Village of New York, which was then considered to be a hippie-infested haven. A pair of retired artists took a liking to this style, and presented it to fashion designers and magazine editors. Tie-dye then blew up as a trend popularized by influential musicians like Janis Joplin.

While this psychedelic pattern was a good fit for the radical youth movement in America, Rit Dye and hippies did not invent tie-dye. Japanese Shibori dates back to the eighth century, which is a practice of “binding stitching, folding, twisting and compressing” cloth prior to coloring it with dye, such as indigo. Indian Bandhani is another traditional method of tie-dye, in which fabric is tediously pinched before dyeing, to create patterns like speckled dots, flowers, trees or animals.

Whatever traditional cultural connotations that this practice of dyeing entails, a person who sports a tie-dye Grateful Dead or Phish shirt is more likely to represent appreciation for hippie-associated music, with a value for experimenting with mind-altering psychoactive substances.

Paisleys: From Orient to Occident

The “swirled pattern of abstract curved shapes,” also known as Paisleys, are commonly printed on summer dresses, bandanas and general linens. Also seemingly psychedelic, these droplet motifs result from a long history of cross-cultural style, trade and manufacture.

The paisley design traces back to the Kashmir region, having evolved into its rounded, twisted shape from centuries of influence from Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern cultures Starting in the late 18th century, Western traders ventured to Eastern locales to acquire these droplet-printed cashmere shawls, and bring them back to Europe as luxury gifts for stylish women.

Though these flowing shawls were initially an expensive status symbol, over time, European manufacturers began to develop their own paisley patterns, making garments of this style cheaper and more accessible. Paisley, a town in Scotland, became a significant production center for these colorful and patterned textiles during the 19th century, hence the name.

Paisleys began to decline in popularity later in the 1800s, but this motif started to be trendy again with hippies in the 1960s, to symbolize “rebellion and ethnic design.” Young people extended paisleys from shawls, and wore them on suits, skirts, and slacks.

International Misinterpretations

The meaning of cultural imagery in style, whether it’s dyeing, printing, weaving, or replicating, is subject to be lost in translation anywhere.

During the grunge movement, people who wore flannel shirts probably did not relate them to any Scottish clan their plaid pattern could possibly represent. Out in the Eastern Hemisphere, Asian markets are often stocked with blatantly unaware Western-style clothing, such as women’s sweatshirts that say “AKE MICHIGAN” or children’s T-shirts with marijuana leaves.

In most developed, Western countries, people have the freedom of sporting any traditional, cultural look they wish, without being experts on the complete history of where their style stems. However, before you decide what to wear to the annual hippie festival or weekly drum circle, you can make yourself the most enlightened one there by understanding the historic, religious, social and economic history of your psychedelic outfit.