Origin of the Trend: Polka Dots

Polka dots are cutesy and girly and maybe a little bit reminiscent of the 1950s, like most every trend is these days. I typically associate them with poodle skirts and pin-up calendars, in addition to the way comic books look when you put them really close to your face. But, alas, their true origin is much more gruesome.

Back when ladies still wore corsets and “Ring Around the Rosie” was not a dirty song by Jackie Q, but one meant to warn of the plague, dot-sprinkled fabric was an indicator of the bloody coughs of tuberculosis and a symbol of measles, syphillis, smallpox, and other deadly diseases marked by blemished skin (Slate). Dotted prints hit a little bit too close to home for the Europeans living from the 1500s on. Besides, polka dotted lepers, au naturel fashion-forward, probably felt like wearing spots would lead to too much of a good thing.

Outside of Europe, however, polka dots were (and are) prestigious. It is unclear whether it was the Western or the non-Western cultures who were being rebellious or ironic. Painted dots in the Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of Congo were/are used to decorate boys participating in rites of passage ceremonies, while shamans (essentially religious magicians) in southern African are covered in dots that “depict supernatural potency . . . [T]he more densely packed microdots show the concentrated, magical potency inside a shaman’s body” (Slate). I like thinking of polka dots as magical elements of the universe. It makes so many PB Teen bedspreads, and my ’90s childhood in its entirety, even cooler. No wonder they were always at the top of my Christmas Wishlist.

Fun Polka Dot Fact that Doesn’t Have to Do with Clothes: Women, from the 1590s to the 1720s, used to put black polka dots on their faces to hide zits and moles (FlauntSlate). Looks like Marilyn Monroe was a copycat.

Polka-dotted fabric didn’t shed its weird, symbolic meanings for another hundred years, but once it did, it blossomed. The true polka dot, according to LAWeekly, ”was born in mid to late 19th century England, where dandies like Beau Brummel (who took five hours a day to get ready) started a trend for dotted scarves, bow ties and the such.” Brummel, a member of the British Regency who became friends with a soon-to-be king, was like a menswear pioneer, which is probably why the menswear retailer in SoHo stole his name (HistClo). So, if he was wearing polka dots, everyone was wearing polka dots.

Even the ladies, who evidently adopt a lot of trends from men, found the dots appealing. They’re kind of hypnotic, so I can see why. Following the French Revolution, “Neo-Classical styles which favored paler colors and small neat patterns, often against a crisp white backdrop [were popular]. Regularly spaced on an unseen latticework, often machine-produced, polka dots from this era looked remarkably fresh and modern, the “clean” product of culture versus nature and the perfect symbol of a rising manufacturing age” (Slate). Polka dots had, at this point, completely ceased to indicate any sort of disease in favor of looking pretty and pure. Good life decisions, polka dots.

Especially delicate was the “dotted swiss” version of polka dots, which referred to “raised dots on transparent tulle” (Slate); the bigger version, which is probably the one to make it to the era of poodle skirts, was called “thalertupfen.” At least, that’s what the Germans called it. The only connection of the term “polka dots” to the dance referred to as “the polka” is, allegedly, the fact that both were crazes in America at approximately the same time; the term came from Godey’s Lady Book, which sounds like it would be similar Bossy Pants, but it probably wasn’t at all. Pretend all polka dancers were required to costume themselves in polka dots, and the scenario becomes more fun.

Polka dots really took off in the twentieth century with Minnie Mouse’s iconic skirt/dress (she changed outfits a lot) and Winston Churchill, who was a fan of the print (LAWeekly). [The implicit connection between Minnie and Churchill is accidental; who knows if he even acknowledged her existence? Or if he was even alive when she wore polka dots?]

The trend was prolific in the mid ’30s, but “the year 1940 exploded with a beguiling proliferation of dots of every shape, size, and arrangement,” according to Slate. That spring, the Los Angeles Times said that ”you can sign your fashion life away on the polka-dotted line, and you’ll never regret it this season.”

Though later obsessions with stripes and floral prints may have proved that killing yourself over polka dots was probably something to, you know, not do, the trend was so well-respected that it was seen on Hollywood starlets Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor (RIP, girls). This was “during the same time period Christian Dior began to release his notable hourglass dresses in spotted prints” (Flaunt), but I’m going to choose to believe that Taylor and Monroe were the designer’s muses.

According to Flaunt, polka dots are “It’s a favorite motif among designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcons, Miuccia Prada and Stella McCartney. In a documented meeting between Marc Jacobs and Yayoi Kasama, the Japanese visual artist gave the fashion designer a rendition of his own Louis Vuitton bag decorated in her signature polka dot cascade. While the exchange signified a collaboration that could have been but never was, Kasama’s influence can still be seen in Jacob’s Fall 2011 collection.”

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on April 29, 2012.

Origin of the Trend: Nail Polish

It’s kind of weird that we put semi-permanent paint on our bodies. It’s kind of weird that we pay people to do this for us, as if we’ve temporarily lost control of our fingers and have to take a break in an awkwardly comfortable massage chair while reading tabloids from 2009. It’s kind of weird that we subject ourselves to the fumes involved in this process, and willingly sit in enclosed spaces filled with them. It’s probably weirdest that this hour-long event is considered “luxurious” and is reserved for times when we need to be “pampered.”

Sounds like a pretty terrible way to drop fifty dollars, if you ask me.

This “posh living” stigma has survived millenia, having originated in China circa 3000 BCE (Beautifully-Invisible), when nail painting was reserved for royalty. Or else you would be literally put to death. The polish, typically red or black, was composed of “a complex lacquer of gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax, vegetable dyes, and egg whites. Crushed orchid and rose petals helped to produce shades from pink to red” (Refinery29).

The super-loaded biddes, namely those living in a dynasty mysteriously called “The Chou,” even coated their nails in gold (PopularNailPolish). The polish mixtures sometimes had to set overnight, which leaves me wondering why they didn’t just try the cold water trick. Then I remember that the wealthy were probably given special training on how to be so patient as to wait for their nails to dry, holding their hands limp in front of them, for half a day. This was a class that most likely followed “How to Hold Utensils 202″ and “Leisure Part 1: Fancy Animals.”

Nail-coloring procedures existed before this ultra-fab technique, too. Take India circa 5000 BCE for example, according to Refinery29, where dying your fingertips with henna was pretty commonplace.  Ancient Egypt, which is so selfish that it has to get involved in literally everything, also used henna (and maybe sometimes blood…?) for nail painting, though those in the lower-class had to stick to pale shades (Inspirationail). Queen Nefertiti was a fan of Ruby Red, and we applaud her for being so bold.

Those living in Babylonia circa 3200 BCE, assumedly just the royals, decked their nails in gold and kohl, which was a lethal component of eyeliner, too! It’s safe to say that nail painting was fancy and scandalous from the start.

For approximately 2,000 years, nail painting, according to the Internet, died. It was probably all the kohl. It reappeared in the 1400s, when the white man discovered the Incas and said, “Alas! These are a people with eagles on their fingers!” (direct quote). Thus, the Incas began nail art, with their painted eagles (Refinery29).

For the next couple-hundred years, shiny was in and matte was out. Probably, again, because only the wealthy could afford to hire Nail Shiners. The trend was documented in commissioned portraits, as well as in a book by Italian painter Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (PopularNailPolish).

Tint returned in the early 1800s, when women attacked their nails with an arsenal of oils, creams, buffers, and powders. The effect was a very pale red (I’m thinking light pink) color that was enhanced by nail-brightening lemon juice. According to Refinery29, ”This minimalistic treatment was in part due to the Victorian ideals of transparent inner beauty, physical hygiene, and moral purity.” TheFrisky adds that polish recipes could be found in cookbooks, which makes me hungry, but also repulsed and confused.

One-hundred years later, in 1932 the first Revlon nail polish appeared. Revolutionary because it’s purpose was to coat the nail, instead of merely tinting or dying it, the polish concept caught on. The idea is credited to a woman named Michelle Menard, who was inspired by car paint (PopularNailPolish). Prostitutes latched on to this snazzy trend and, hey, who knows how it spread from there? (Jealous wives, most likely.) Hollywood loved it, and pretty soon, in typical American fashion, the entire country (sans men, ’cause it was the thirties) was indulging in nail polish.

While the 1960s found pale colors appealing again, in “1976, American Jeff Pink created one of the most well-known manicures for busy Hollywood starlets: The French Manicure” (Refinery29). Then, of course, neon was cool in the ’80s (as it is now), and Sharpie-style nails were appropriately edgy in the ’90s.

Since 2000, we have seen the creation of pseudo-nail-polish in the form of stickers, jewels, and those weird 3D-nails things that I always want to touch. We’ve got scented polish, magnetic polish, polish that crackles, and polish that doesn’t look polished. Glitter is also a common nail accessory, but, really, who’s surprised by that? Ke$ha pretty much called it. If we can glue it, it’ll probably be found on someone’s nails somewhere.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on April 22, 2012.

Origin of the Trend: Drop Waist

I don’t know if I love or hate the fact that so many contemporary trends originated in men’s fashion. Is this indicative of a fashion revolution, or will women never get their own niche (I mean, aside from dresses–but even those can be traced back to males)? In the case of the drop waist, it appears that women’s fashion has incorporated a masculine element and helped it blossom.

And it doesn’t hurt that drop waists are may more comfortable/allow for, you know, breathing to occur.

The transformation from constricting, corset-like bodices, which most likely decreased fertility rates (double-dipping in style and contraception) and stifled hunger, to dresses with dropped waists was one that coincided with the female sexual revolution in the 1920s. Whether the flapper or a slight increase in women’s freedom came first is up for debate, but it is evident that the former’s iconic dresses have their origins in a masculine silhouette. Because men, historically, weren’t fond of wearing corsets. But that’s just a generalization.

These dresses, which have come to symbolize the twenties, are Coco Chanel’s creation, called the Garçonne look. Even the style’s name, translating to “boy” in French, signifies masculinity. The look consisted of dropped waistlines, straight trousers, and masculine blazers and cardigans.

According to HemlineQuarterly.wordpress.com, ”As early as 1914, Coco Chanel was promoting a new silhouette for women, one that emphasized comfort over decorative frills.  By the end of World War I in 1918, her designs were selling throughout France. . . .  The corset was completely unnecessary to achieve the chic Chanel garçonne look: slim, straight, and vertical, with no waistline, and a hemline that emphasized movement rather than modesty.”

Coco, in her designs, encouraged wild nights of dancing and romping. Thanks, Coco, for contributing to the sexual revolution by allowing women to move their hips.

Because the Garçonne look made women look fancy and sexy and classy and young, but also simultaneously boyish and dainty, it stuck. So, the ladies looking to chop off their hair and flatten their ta-tas in an effort to display their independence and their to act on sexual impulses like men (supposedly) do were supported by this flowy, baggier dress style.

Though the 1950s brought an increase in popularity of more traditional waistlines (insert a feminist rant about a male-dominated society that mandates “feminine” silhouettes in fashion), the drop waist returned when women decided to shed sexual reservations yet again, in the 1960s. It’s beginning to look like this style is always associated with classy ladies looking to say, “Hey, dude, I’m hot and I can do it, too.” I wonder, then, what kind of sexual revolution is occurring now. (Could this trend be a product of the abortion debates? Was Rick Santorum the catalyst for the revival of the drop waist?)

According to SammyDVintage.com, ”While the ’60s marked a whirlwind time of trends and change, it also marked a return to favor for the drop waist. Thanks to production power and the rise of department store fashion, girls and women [could[ buy drop waist cotton and machine washable frocks in a variety of designs and patterns, like gingham, chevron stripes or oversize floral.”

And because the ’70s copied everything the ’60s did, the even-hippie-er decade was fond of the drop waist, too. But paired with shorter skirts. Because the ’70s liked to be a little bit raunchy.

The drop waist flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, where baggy silhouettes were, in some fashion circles, coveted. Ever since its creation, in the early 1920s, the drop waist has weaved its way into contemporary trends. The recent obsession with ’50s fashion resulted in a shift away from lower waistlines, in favor of emphasizing instead of diminishing curves; but now that countries are encouraging American women to get balls-to-the-wall furious with sexist politicians, many designers are forgoing hourglass silhouettes for boxier ones, as if to say, “We can look hot without spandex.”

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on April 6, 2012.

Origin of the Trend: Color Blocking

Color blocking is the most retro thing to hit the runways since high-waisted shorts. It’s so retro that it never really went away, but instead has continued to “reappear” in contemporary collections, as if it’s the new thing. Although it may not be innovative, it’s a trend that always makes you look fresh and fashion-forward. Oh, the irony.

To me, color blocking is the fashion world’s way of doing what Georges Seurat did with Pointillism and what Claude Monet did with his series of haystack and poplar tree paintings: it is an exploration of the optical effect of putting colors that are opposites on the color wheel next to each other (read on color theory and Post-Impressionism here). Or, it may be an excuse for stylists to throw together everything leftover on a shoot.

Either way, it looks pretty fresh.

The emergence of Pop Art in the 1950s pushed America into the acceptance of vibrancy and manufactured structure, leading to the development, in the 1960s, of a fashion culture enamored of color blocking. I like to picture Edie Sedgwick in some tights, a red bodycon dress, and a brightly colored coat, even though all she ever wore is that one striped piece, right?

Sedgwick may have been a Pop Art muse, but the clothing inspired by the movement was more in line with its empowering/addicting/acid-trip-esque ideals: “Characterized by bold, simple, everyday imagery, and vibrant block colours, [Pop Art] was interesting to look at and had a modern ‘hip’ feel. The bright colour schemes also enabled this form of avant garde art . . . to narrow the divide between the commercial arts and the fine arts” (Visual-Arts-Cork.com). Artists like hipster-favorite Andy Warhol were so cool that everyone in New York couldn’t help but start to wear clothing that was as bold as the work in their galleries, like this Piet Mondrian-inspired dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent.

As demonstrated by this 1966 video, the runway was soon covered in Pop Art’s clean lines and flat colors (though, I guess you can’t definitively tell that the latter is true in this footage; you’ll just have trust that I traveled back in time to do my research).

Of course, color blocking made it to the 1970s, the home of all trends. The 70s were such a clusterfluff of styles that I can’t think of a look that wasn’t popular during the decade. Imagine a pair of belted crimson bell-bottoms pulled over a sky blue blouse with an awkwardly shaped blazer on top. Thankfully, 2011 achieved the 1970s look a little bit better than 1970 did when color-blocked sweaters became popular among top designers.

The 80s loved color-blocked sweaters, too (they also loved tracksuits, but we don’t really like to talk about that, even though each one was probably the epitome of color blocking). In addition to the primary-color-adorned pieces loved by the designers of the 1960s, those in this decade filled rigid squares with secondary shades.

Collections of the past few seasons have managed to mix color blocking elements from all of the previous decades, ensuring the trend’s classy usage. The 80s were just a learning experience.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on March 23, 2012.

Origin of the Trend: Wide Belts

It’s time to throw away your skinny braided belt. Instead, indulge in the fashion world’s love for those big belts that take up one-fourth of your torso, because the former is allegedly “out.” (I’ll be keeping my hipster belts, despite what everyone says, because I have a hard time believing a gladiator-style piece of leather is going to make anyone under six feet tall look anything but shorter). I can never really figure out who makes these decisions, but I know I absolutely have to follow them if I don’t want to look like a dud.

The belt has always been a classy accessory, and it’s one that is pretty difficult to mess up: if you can tie a string around your waist, you can do a belt.

Ignoring the measly strands of yarn/strips of hide/dandelions fashioned into a loop that were efficient for holding swords and hatchets and other large metal weapons (because that was just a tragic time in fashion), some of the early belts were wide and made to add curves to the body. According to OnceUponABelt.com, in the late 1800s, “waist cinching belts were primarily worn by officers, some of whom also wore small corsets to make their waists smaller. They were subject to ridicule from cartoonists of the time, not only for this, but [also for] their reputation of endless drinking.” The big belts popular this spring are intended to serve the same purpose. Whether they succeed is up for debate.

Women didn’t really start wearing belts until the early Middle Ages, according to Women-Belts.com. Even then, they were not a popular accessory. According to OnceUponABelt.com, ”Belts for women were free to become more of a style statement but did not really kick off until 1900 to 1910, when worn with blouse and long skirt combos typically as a boned silk sash with a v-shape at the front to emphasise the small waist.” Even ladies in 1910 wanted to look like (the yet-to-exist) Barbie. The pieces were largely decorative, as women didn’t have any reason to hook meat cleavers to their waists.

Belt’s didn’t acquire a sense of functionality until the 1920s, according to Women-Belts.com, when men’s pants were worn lower on the waist. Eighty years later, men’s pants and general belt use would both drop further, much to the dismay of anyone who does not appreciate a good morning buttcrack.

The belts that are in style today are definitely not functional–one could say that constraining the waist and then going to a Chinese buffet is actually quite the opposite–but are designed to be eye-catching.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on March 6, 2012.

Origin of the Trend: Vera Bradley Wristlets

Having traveled fourteen hours in the hope that I would escape everything related to suburban Ohio (AKA everything tacky), I was disappointed to see so many (AKA 98 percent of) Emerson kids toting these kitschy purses. I’ve never understood the deal with paisley, as I think it looks like vomit.

But, college students across the country disagree. Or, they think they have to disagree to look cool/get laid. It may, then, be breaking news that, hey, you can fully admit that Vera Bradley wristlets are annoying and impractical and not cute without worrying about getting a boyfriend–as long as getting rid of them doesn’t mean you’ll resort to making him carry your lipstick in his pocket. He’ll hate that.

I guess they would make more sense if we still attached tools to our belts and had to carry a lot of arrowheads from one camp to the next, but we don’t. That’s why our purses aren’t made from animal hide.

Well, some of them are. But still.

The ancient Egyptians, being the best trendsetters, wore their pouches around their waists (RandomHistory.com). I’m pretty sure you can do that with a wristlet, too. That’s why the straps have those clippy things.

This trend continued into the Middle Ages, when the little pouches would be attached to girdles (props to the genius who invented pockets) (HenriettasHandbags.com), and the Elizabethan Era, when people would fill them with potpourri, since no one took baths (RandomHistory.com).

Around 1850, allegedly (so RandomHistory.com says), French women were stripped of their pockets again, as “the full skirts of the ancient regime became less popular in favor of a more slender and narrow dress”; so, the pouches came back. The history of the wristlet is essentially women’s struggle to hold their shit in an anti-pocket world. It’s been a rough life. But is it really any easier to carry your iPhone in a cumbersome pouch than in a purse you don’t actually have to use your hands to hold?

Probably not, but they look pretty in delicate hands of pretty ladies looking to show off their embroidery skills. After World War I, the first official clutch was invented: “the ‘pochette,’ [was] a type of handle-less clutch, often decorated with dazzling geometric and jazz motifs, which women would tuck under their arms to give them an air of nonchalant youth” (RandomHistory.com). These gave way to larger bags by the 1940s, but smaller handbags regained popularity in the ever-so-modest/terrifying 1950s.

Thirty-two years later, two classy midwestern (they are literally from Indiana, which happens to be thirty minutes from my parents’ house, so I don’t know why New England cares about them) ladies created Vera Bradley, a “feminine” luggage company (VeraBradley.com).

Of course, you can buy a wristlet from Coach, or Louis Vuitton, or Kate Spade. And Coach’s probably came first, seeing as the leather company was founded in 1941 (FundingUniverse.com). But it just wouldn’t be the same as having that garish (okay, some of the prints are actually kind of cute) quilt fabric dangling from your arm.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on February 21, 2012.

Origin of the Trend: Snoods

“Snood.” The word is funny in itself. Is it a scarf-hood? A Snookie-dud? A snow-firewood? Does it really exist? A garment that sounds more like a Dr. Seuss character than something people willingly put around their necks, the snood is a mystery. Upon browsing H&M, I concluded that it is a piece of fabric that hangs, often limp, around the neck. But why, snood? Why are you not a conventional scarf, allowing for a variety of tying techniques to accompany more outfits than those donned in the dead of winter? Why must you be an endless, knit loop?

Because a snood is so much more than that.

Although the fur neck-handcuff version may be similar to that tuft of hair around the Grinch’s collarbone, the snood has a substantial history, having dabbled in the territories of accessories, hats, scarves, hoods, and religious head-coverings.

Originally, the snood was a hairpiece, created to ensure the modesty of pre-sixteenth century women.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Scottish snood was a narrow circlet or ribbon fastened around the head and worn primarily by unmarried women, as a sign of chastity.” In the years that followed, the snood would become less symbolic and more functional: it would grow into a glorified hairnet.

Following the end of the Medieval era, snoods evolved from the antithesis of a scarlet letter to a fully fledged hat . . . of sorts. (Is it still a hat if your scalp isn’t covered?) Typically crocheted or similarly woven, these snoods were the first step toward the scarf-hood hybrid worn today.

The hairpieces were meant to keep stray hairs from falling into the faces of women so they a.) would look fresh and pretty (c. 1500), b.) wouldn’t shed into the dinners they were cooking, and c.) wouldn’t get their hair caught in the machines they were working during WWII (c. 1940) (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Pretty and useful, the snood of the early twentieth century was the perfect accessory for the polished woman’s wardrobe. It’s funny, then, that these early snoods remind me of those saggy beret things every pseudo-bohemian was wearing a few years ago. Maybe these hipsters were concerned about getting film developing chemicals or paint in their hair. Or maybe they all had cold heads. Or cold back-of-heads.

The more traditional form of the accessory, covering not only the hair, but also the top of the scalp, is the most direct precursor to the hooded style that erupted on the fall/winter 2011 runways. Snoods worn to protect female modesty in Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism (called the shpitzel in the latter), according to Head-Coverings-by-Devorah.com; Islam (called the hijab), according to Islamic.org.uk; and other faiths are draped over the head to provide the wearer maximum coverage.

Sometimes referred to as “cauls,” according to ElizabethanCostume.net, a version of the snood made of more tightly woven fabric are reminiscent of cowls in both their name and silhouette. These snoods, seen most frequently in stores today, look like the top portion of a cowl-neck or turtleneck sweater, chopped off of the garment’s body. The excess fabric makes this a convertible product, like reversible puffer coats or zip-off cargo pants: the snood of 2011 can be both a scarf and a hood. Clever.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on December 15, 2011.