Polka Dot Power
Follow the dots to spot fashion's 171 year long fascination with polka dots
by David Wolfe
Article from Paper Doll Studio Issue 87, 2007 (out of print)
Polka dots are considered a classic print today.They are never out of style and sometimes they are hot spots.This summer on the French Riviera, trendy types were wearing dresses in the same polka dot prints longs associated with little old ladies. White spots on navy blue, on brown or on black. And suddenly. they look chic again!That’s how it’s been with polka dots for more than a century and a half.
First it was a dance craze, a simple, lively spin around the floor.In 1835 the polka swept the world.It was such a sensation that the word “polka” became a buzz word and was applied to a variety of things.Nobody bothered much that the word itself means “Polish woman” in Bohemian or it is more likely a corruption of the Czech work “pulka” that means “half” referencing the short half streps performed in the dance itself.There was everything polka hats to polka curtains.The mania subsided and only the polka dot remains to become a constant part of our fashion vocabulary.
Like most things in fashion, polka dots come and go, but they never disappear entirely.There were times throughout the twentieth century when they hit the style bull’s eye.
In the 1930s polka dots popped up as the height of fashion.The silhouette of the time was soft and flowing with chiffon and silk lending themselves to the neatness of regimented spots.Polka dots then were usually small and dainty, aspirin or pindot size on black, navy or red grounds.Eleanor Roosevelt often appeared in polka dotted dresses and so did Minnie Mouse!
During the 1940s polka dots slipped out of style and became a sort of fail-safe, conservative and classic print.However, they did get a starring role in a big, giddy Busby Berkeley production number, “The Polka Dot Polka” in an Alice Faye musical, “The Gang’s All Here.”
Dots popped back into fashion again during the 1950s when they were printed on everything from children’s playclothes to men’s neckties and grand ball gowns.While polka dots were popular with ordinary folks, famous designers like Christian Dior and Jacques Fath also went dotty.Black, white and pink were the most popular colors for fashionable polka dots.Polka dots peppered Marilyn Monroe’s curves in “The Seven Year Itch.”A new dot came into being, the Dogpatch dot, worn by Lil’ Abner comic strip character, Daisy Mae.It featured dots of several sizes, randomly spaced.Undoubtedly, the most famous potted item of all time inspired the 1955 hit tune, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
A decade later when Pop Art was born in the 1960s, polka dots once again began a veritable rage.This time around they were anything but classic.Then enlarged comic strip paintings of Roy Lichtenstein zoomed-in and revealed dots.Bridget Riley’s Op Art often utilized dots.But it was the swinging fashion of the Youthquake that make polka dots really pop!.Designers like Rudi Gernreich and Mary Quant printed polka dots on mini-dresses and tights, on shoes and gloves.They dared to mix dots with stripes in eye-popping color combinations like blue/green and orange/pink.
In 1975 a polka dot became famous in sporting circles.During the Tour de France bicycle race, the cyclist who earns the most points for riding up mountains is named King of the Mountain.The sponsor that year was chocolate maker Poulain, whose wrappers were polka dotted and the prize was a red-on-white polka dot jersey top.Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk was the first to wear the polka dots and the jersey has been awarded every year since.
Polka dots reappeared in the 1980s when fashion went on a retro rampage and revived many looks from the 1950s.Among the recycled revivals were polka dots in pin-and-black, red-and-black or white-and-black.They were usually for tops and dresses with big shoulder pads that were worn over black leggings.The most avant garde fashion of the ‘80s was a throw-back to fashion history.Way-out Brit designer Vivienne Westwood tried to revive the hoopskirt with her polka dotted “mini-crini.”Needless to say, it never caught on.
“Pretty Woman,” the 1990 movie that starred Julia Roberts as a hooker turned Cinderella, created a short-lived rage for white-and-brown polka dots like the dress the star wore in the film.
Today polka dots are poised to make yet another comeback.Classic white spots printed on navy, black or brown are back in fashion.Many polka dotted fashions have been recently spotted on the runways of New York, L.A. and Paris.
Polka dots are the perfect example of how fashion moves forward by constant repeating itself.Whether they are “in” or “out,” polka dots are here to stay!