A Brief History of Polka Dots
by Chloe Pantazi
America’s love affair with the polka dot began, perhaps, in 1926, when Miss America was photographed in a polka dot swimsuit. Shortly after, in 1928, Disney introduced its cartoon darling Minnie Mouse wearing a red polka dot dress and matching bow. Throughout the 1930s, polka dot dresses appeared in stores, the fabric suddenly subversive, nipped in by ribbons and accentuated with bows. In 1940, the woozy melody of Frank Sinatra’s ballad “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” captured the height of America’s polka dot mania — that spring, the Los Angeles Times assured its readers, “You can sign your fashion life away on the polka-dotted line, and you’ll never regret it.”
Later in the decade, the polka dot accrued a highbrow style currency when Christian Dior released his “New Look” collection of hourglass dresses, many styles bedecked with dots. After a wartime period of shifting gender roles, Dior told Vogue that his collection sought “to make women extravagantly, romantically, eyelash-battingly female” again. (Dior: not a fan of the polka dots on Rosie the Riveter’s headband.) Hollywood followed feminine suit, and the newly-ladylike print fast became popular with actresses: Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball, and Marilyn Monroe were some of the polka dot’s chief exponents.
In 1951, Monroe was famously photographed wearing a polka dot bikini. Nine years later, the release of Brian Hyland’s hit song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” brought polka dots back into vogue. Throughout the ’60s, the artist–and walking medley of polka dots–Yayoi Kusama became known for the busy dotted swarms that covered her paintings. “Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of others,” she once said. Kusama also believed–before she checked herself into a mental hospital in 2006–that when painted with polka dots, the body became “part of the unity of the universe.” Now released, the artist still sports the print.
Once upon a time, spotted prints went by a host of other names. Slate’s Jude Stewart provides an overview: in the 19th century, “Dotted-Swiss referred to raised dots on transparent tulle,” and in France, “quinconce described the diagonal arrangement of dots seen on the 5-side of dice.” Meanwhile, “[t]he large coin-sized dots on fabric, called Thalertupfen in German, got their name from Thaler, the currency of German-speaking Europe until the late 1800s.”
But then came the polka, the dance so popular that mid-19th century Europe came up with the word “polkamania” to describe its own excitement. As the polka craze swept west across the continent, enthusiasts claimed the polka jacket, then the polka hat (neither of them spotted), and finally, the polka dot. There is only a tenuous connection between dot and dance, yet surely the two are linked — it’s possible that polka dots reflect the same regulated, short bursts of energy that inflect the polka itself. Regardless, we know that the American women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book was the first to print the term, in an 1857 description of a “scarf of muslin, for light summer wear, surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots.”
The word “polka” itself derives from the Polish for “Polish woman” — in Czech, it translates to “little woman or girl.” Polka dots are inherently diminutive, automatically feminine. Today, when we wear them, we inherit their complicated legacy from the women that have worn them before us — women who have negotiated the shifting realm of trying to rock a dot and be taken seriously at the same time. As Elle Woods’ college counselor famously said, “Harvard won’t be impressed that you aced History of Polka Dots.”
Of course, there aren’t just dotty women. In 1962, Marvel Comics unleashed its polka dot-clad superhero — Polka-Dot Man, who used the power of polka dots to defeat baddies. In 1965, Bob Dylan appeared on the cover of the EP for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in a striking green polka dot shirt. Much later, in an episode of Mad Men (in which nearly all the female characters have worn polka dots), Roger Sterling donned a spotted maroon silk scarf. In recent years, the print has become increasingly popular with men, with celebrities like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lionel Messi, and Mickey Avalon embracing the trend, as well as the (female) designer Rei Kawakubo of the fashion house Comme des Garçons, who has applied polka dots to brogues, shirts, tees and wallets among other men’s fashion items.
“Polka dots need not be emasculating,” said Anna Akbari, wardrobe consultant and founder of the styling business Closet Catharsis. Akbari, who teaches a course entitled “Fashion and Power” at NYU, added that men wearing polka dots “demonstrates that they pay attention to fashion, that they’re fashion-focused.” Other renowned male advocates of the polka dot include Marc Jacobs, with his “Dotty” collection and Dot perfume (jasmine, orange blossom and honeysuckle), and the artist Damien Hirst, notorious for his sterile, vertigo-inducing dot paintings.
And you can’t talk about dots in art without talking about Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. The Pointillists saw the world in dots and composed entire masterpieces out of them, applying miniature freckles of paint to fill an image. But pointillism was viewed as non-serious; the technique, despite its required precision and dexterity, was dismissed as immature. Nevertheless, some great painters have been Pointillists; Maximilien Luce, Camille Pisarro, Van Gogh, Roy Lichtenstein and Chuck Close have all dabbled in the medium.
Before pointillism’s heyday, polka dots featured more conventionally in art, reflecting nothing more than each epoch’s fashion. In Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1865–6), a glamorous lady is pictured donning a delicate, frilled white dress speckled with small blue polka dots, and in Frédéric Bazille’s Family Reunion (1867), both young girls in the family portrait wear white frocks with blue dots and ribbons. The subjects of Berthe Morisot’s The Sisters (1869) are dressed in identical white polka dot ensembles — in this decade, it was custom to wear polka dots in white and blue. Variation came later, shown in Jozsef Rippl-Ronai’s Lady in a Polka-Dot Dress (1889), in which a smartly dressed young woman roaming about town appears in a brown colored frock festooned with large, bold, cream polka dots.
Although the subjects of these paintings are well-to-do young women, in the first known photograph of polka dot garb from 1865, the woman wearing them is sweeping the floor in a baggy polka dot shirt tucked into a striped skirt with a polka dot apron, similar to the dotted items purchased by the writer Elizabeth L. Banks in Campaigns of Curiosity: Journalistic Adventures of an American Girl in London (1894), who “bought a black and white polka-dot blouse and apron for work in the laundry.” At the time, polka dots were considered to be provocative simply because of their novelty, but perhaps what’s more audacious is that the lady pictured is grinning; smiling wasn’t then deemed appropriate photo etiquette. Of course, certain enthusiasts might say that it’s hard not to smile in polka dots.
Today, polka dots inevitably conjure the past. “There’s definitely a nostalgia associated with polka dots,” Akbari said. “I think of the ’50s and ’60s. With the rise of vintage, it makes sense that polka dots would be revived.” Yet this nostalgia is complicated. In the rockabilly scene, polka dots make a certain statement about femininity — nodding back to the era of JFK, stress-smoking and stay-at-home wives, while also holding a middle finger up to it. For many feminists, what attracts us to the polka dot also repels.
I asked Akbari about the best occasions to wear polka dots, and she wondered aloud about the suitability of wearing the print to a job interview. “Let’s say you’re interviewing at a law firm, you probably wouldn’t want to wear polka dots,” she suggested. Yet, “in other professions where you want to show you’re creative,” she added, “polka dots are great.” What about on a date? Akbari said that polka dots make good date wear, because “they communicate a playful femininity, a girlishness.”
Does it matter that playful femininity is no longer de rigueur? How many women avoid the polka dot because they want to leave its associations behind? On men, the print might seem a forward-looking statement, yet polka dots seem to hurtle the women wearing them back into the past–either hoisting us into the speckled aprons of the 1860s, or else squeezing us into the next century’s itsy bitsy teenie weenie bikinis. How can we change our spots if we’re still wearing them?
Our clothes transmit a message, and sometimes it is necessary to lodge a polka dot defense. In a Glamour interview, Zooey Deschanel said: “There is not an ounce of me that believes any of that crap… We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a fucking feminist and wear a fucking Peter Pan collar. So fucking what?”
As a proud polka dot lover, I like to think that the same applies to my favorite print, which is still as performative as the dance from which it takes its name. When I wear polka dots, I speak through them, rather than letting them speak for me. Dressed in polka dots, I’m always myself, but also in character; an amalgam of dotty ladies: Gwen Stefani in the “Don’t Speak” video, Adelaide from Guys and Dolls, Joan Harris and Peggy Olson both, Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner, and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. Occasionally I’ll even recognize my late great-grandmother in my navy blue polka dot dress. I think of her in her similar frock, which was royal blue with white dots, just a little more matronly. My yiayia — ardent cook, knitting enthusiast, devout Greek Orthodox churchgoer and centenarian at the time of her death — was of another time, and she held wholly different beliefs and values to my own. Yet when I wear our mutually beloved print, I feel, somehow, Kusama’s dotty “unity of the universe” flickering and bursting between us.
Chloe Pantazi is a freelance writer and graduate student on NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Her writing has appeared on Flavorwire, Hyperallergic, Guernica, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic. She lives in Brooklyn via the UK, and you can find her on Twitter.
Photo via Homini/flickr.