The times changed, the virtues changed, but each time it appeared different and did not lose its popularity. POLKA DOT - it's so classic and at the same time playfully light-hearted. But how did it all begin in fashion history?
Women's lifestyle magazine Godey's Lady's Book was the first to use the term polka dot (in reference to a scarf) in its 1857 issue, with the following description: "Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear, surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots."
As seen in pictures above:
1. Norma Smalwood, crowned Miss America in 1926. Photo by Hulton Archive on Getty Images
2. Woman Dressed in Polka Dot Dress by József Rippl-Rónai, 1889. Location: Unknown
Polka Dot Pattern Through The Decades Of Fashion
Fashionable society was again, and more prominently, introduced to the polka dot in 1926, when Miss America, Norma Smallwood, was photographed in a polka dot swimsuit. Just two years later in 1928, Disney introduced its cartoon leading lady Minnie Mouse wearing a red polka dot dress and matching bow.
Throughout the 1930s it was obvious that the polka dot had become a revolution in women’s fashion. Polka dot dresses appeared in stores with ribbons and bows. Then in 1940, Frank Sinatra gave a refreshed wind to the pattern with his ballad “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”. This song captured the height of America’s polka dot mania .
Through the decades, the polka dot has endured. In the 1930s and 40s it was everywhere—on swimsuits, yes, but it was also a popular motif for kitchenware and other household items. It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that polka dot dresses really hit their highest point of popularity. In the late 1940s through the 1950s, Christian Dior’s sophisticated “New Look” dominated fashion. In 1954, Dior’s couture collection featured an elegant, structured black dress with white dots, and a star was born. The polka dot remained a staple of ladylike dresses through the 1950s, went mod in the 60s when Twiggy wore drop-waisted scooter dress, then again appeared in psychedelic and bohemian fashion of the 70s. It was standard-issue office wear in the 1980s, and embodied the rockabilly retro trend of the 1990s.
The Beginning of Polka Dot Mania
Centuries ago polka dots were a symbol of the plague until the 19th-century craze for the polka dance changed their status permanently for the better.
Polka Dots first appeared in the context of fashion in 1840s. They were especially visible in bow ties and kerchiefs.
Some say it was the gypsies bringing their moon-shaped mirror embroidery to the flamenco dancers that started it all, but most fashion historians agree that the polka dot as we know it 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 and bow ties.
Polka dots as a fabric pattern didn’t exist until the mid-19th century, as evenly-spaced dots couldn’t really be fabricated without machines. They must have caused quite a stir, considering the drabness of the customary clothing of the time. Polka dots became common on clothing in the late 19th century in the United Kingdom. Since then the polka dot dress has never really gone out of style.
The Origins Of "Polka Dot" Term
The term “polka dot” derives loosely from the Bohemian folk dance of the same name (“Polka”, in the Czech language, means “Polish woman” or “little woman”—tradition has it the dance was named when some Bohemian travellers came upon a young Polish girl performing the dance).
In the mid-1800s, Eastern European immigrants to the United States embraced the polka craze, even forming polka clubs with identifying uniforms for the dancers. Some historians believe these uniforms, often featuring fitted jackets with a dotted pattern, may have inspired the term. However, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the dance’s popularity caused the name to be affixed to all sorts of products, such as - polka-gauze, polka-hat, polka-dot, even polka ham!
Nevertheless, only the dance and the fabric pattern have retained the name.
Polka Dots All Around.....
Polka dots are most commonly seen on children's clothing, toys, and furniture,
but they appear in a wide array of contexts. The pattern rarely appears in formal contexts, however, and is generally confined to more playful attire such as bathing suits and lingerie. Occasionally, white-on-black small dots appear on more formal clothing.
Polka dot dress
House of Rouff (French, founded 1929)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Polka dot dress (Regency style), early 19th century
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA
Let's look around and re-discover the fascination of polka dot pattern once again!
Further reading and references from the following sources:
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.