Polka dots are fun and flirty and probably the most cheerful pattern ever (according to me). I can’t help but smile when I see someone wearing them. Dots are the epitome of happiness.
I’d have to dig out my dad’s clunky, old projector and slides for proof, but I know I have a history of wearing Polk Dots as a kid (ok, yeah, my mom picked out my clothes then) and a teenager. My sister confirmed this; she wore them, too. But the pinnacle of my Dot outfits was the floor length, halter-back, red dotted-swiss dress I wore to my senior prom in the 1970s. Boy, was I foxy.
Polka Dots are defined by Wikipedia as an array of perfectly even and sized circles that make a pattern. But don’t call them spots. Spots are irregular in spacing and shape. Gee, that sounds like something a lab technician at the Center for Disease Control would say.
I prefer to think of Polka Dots as a lively summer print that reminds me not to take myself and the world too seriously.
Dots of all sorts have been with us since cave paintings. But where it gets interesting is in the Middle Ages. Europeans feared that unevenly spaced dots/spots were an omen of an impending plague. Even in the Bible’s book of Leviticus, people were reminded of the spots of leprosy. So, the last thing anyone wanted was to have dots on their clothing. Dots were nearly stopped dead in their tracks.
But time cures all. In the 1800s Industrial Age, the dotted pattern became more socially acceptable. The new textile factories made it possible to manufacture evenly spaced dots on fabric. At about the same time, a new half-step dance called the polka became popular in Bohemia. The dance caught on like wildfire — it traveled from Bohemia to Czechoslovakia and then to Paris by 1840. After jumping over to London by 1844, the craze crossed the Atlantic and arrived on the shores of America.
It turns out the polka trend was a marketer’s dream here. Any product that could be polka-themed was: polka sauce, polka curtains, and polka hats, shoes, and vests. But it was the Philadephia-published and highly trusted Godey’s Lady’s Book that dubbed the Polka Dot in its descriptions of ladies’ fashion with dots. And the term “Polka Dots” stuck.
By the 1920s, America’s love for the Polka Dot picked up momentum. In 1926, Miss America was photographed in a Polka Dot swimsuit. And in 1928, Walt Disney introduced the Minnie Mouse cartoon character wearing a red Polka Dot dress and matching bow (pretty much the dress she wore everywhere she went with Mickey). Throughout the 1930s, Polka Dot ready-wear dresses appeared in stores across the U.S., as well as in retail catalogs like Montgomery Ward’s.
Dots of every shape, size, and arrangement marked the 1940s. In Spring 1940, the Los Angeles Times crooned “You can sign your fashion life away on the polka-dotted line, and you’ll never regret it this season.” A few years later, the Washington Post named the Polka Dot as the pattern of democratic values in wartime: “… a print with social significance is one that most people can wear most of the time . . . (it) makes a clean-cut monotone pattern that is neither dizzy nor monotonous. . . .and manages to be in pleasing proportion to all kinds of figures.” Even Rosie the Riveter wore a Polka Dotted kerchief while flexing her muscles for the poster.
After the war, the Polka Dot went upscale and ultra feminine when Christian Dior introduced his 1947 “New Look” collection of hourglass dresses, many showing dots. Dior told Vogue that he sought “to make women extravagantly, romantically, eyelash-battingly female” again (in contrast to Rosie the Riveter, I guess). And of course, Hollywood followed the Dot trend then and into the 1950s: Actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball, and Marilyn Monroe made the Dots ever more popular.
The 1950s and early 1960s were optimistic years and full of energy, and Polka Dots were right at home. It was a less complicated time, and women were looking for a little sweetness, simplicity, and fun. Think about how darling Audrey Hepburn looked when she wore pink dots in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
In 1951, Marilyn Monroe was famously photographed wearing a Polka Dot bikini. (Actually, it was a very modest swimsuit by today’s standard). And in 1960, Brian Hyland released the hit song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” which celebrated Polka Dots. (“2-3-4 Tell the people what she wore! It was an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini….”). Actresses Jill Ireland and Joey Heatherton wore yellow Polka Dot bikinis, too.
Maybe because Polka Dots personify fun, some people feel the Dot can never be taken seriously. In the movie Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’ college counselor famously said, “Harvard won’t be impressed that you aced History of Polka Dots.” Ouch, that hurt. But remember, Elle won in the end!
Today, with vintage clothing and jewelry so popular, it doesn’t surprise me that Polka Dots are showing up on celebs and the rest of us regular-folk alike. Big dot funky designs, and smaller dot more demure. Designers like Dolce&Gabbana have made Polka Dots a staple in their collections. And Taylor Swift is a fan, too: “In the summer, I love Polka Dots, stripes, red lips,…” which she translated into a clothing line of her own.
So, you can see that the Polka Dot has a strong legacy. They’re pretty much always in style. And I’m certain the appeal of the Dot will continue. After all, when you wear Polka Dots, you can be fun and flirty without ever having to say anything out loud!
Thank you, as always, for listening to my stories.