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 (Flaunt, Slate). 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.
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.