• Tayeeb Khan

Polka Dot & Its History: Its Journey from Being a Taboo to Never Ending Trend


We all have seen Polka Dots someplace or the other. I have come to believe that polka dots are one trend in fashion that is never away for too long. People just can’t get enough of it.


If you thought that Polka dots are the latest trend in fashion which came in very recently, I have just one sentence for you – Could you be any more wrong? Polka Dots has been there for centuries now and yet, it was one of the popular trends of 2020 and again in 2021. The word Polka Dot was searched 40,000 times in the month of August. A Jump from 8,000 searches in the previous months. This suggests that people are showing huge interest in Polka Dots in 2021 as well.


As you can see from the trends, it was high during August 2020 and broke out again in August 2021. I am showing all of this to you, just because I am fascinated by how it has stayed so relevant over all these centuries.


But how does a print design manage to be relevant for so many centuries, well, that is something you can ponder over once you have understood the history of polka dots in general and in fashion.


Do let me know, why you think it has stayed relevant in all these centuries in the comments section below. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.


I was surprised to see many articles on Polka Dots when starting research for this article. I never thought people would be so much interested in Polka Dots and the history. But, to its credit, Polka Dots does have a very fascinating history.


So, in this blog post, we will be learning how polka dots came to be in the fashion industry and why was it a taboo before it became a trend in Fashion, something that no trend forecast could have imagined at that time. This is going to be an interesting one, so read along. Polka dots did not just affect the fashion designers or fashion industry, it had an impact on society as a whole.


So, without further ado, grab your coffee and let us jump right in.


History of Polka Dots:


Polka Dots – A Taboo, A Sign of Deadly Plague & a sign of bad omen:


If you are surprised by the heading of this section, I won’t judge you. Polka Dots only became famous during the mid-19th century. In the 18th century, Polka dots represented a lot of different things in different parts of the world. None of the things that polka dots represented were good.


There is a good reason for this though, a bit illogical if you ask me, but I can see why the people of the 18th century thought they were. I think you might as well if you lived in that era.


Let us just try and understand what they symbolized and the reasons behind the bad rep of polka dots in the 18th century and early 19th century.

If you are good with history, you would know that in Medieval Europe during the 18th century, diseases like Smallpox, the Bubonic plague & leprosy had reached epidemic proportions.


These diseases had such a great effect on people’s psychology that these dark semi-random dot patterns reminded them of these deadly diseases. This is one of the reasons why Polka Dots were considered Taboo at the time. This negative association with dotted patterns was carried on over to the renaissance period as well.


Here are why people associated these kinds of patterns with such deadly diseases.

During these times, there was no way of manufacturing clothes in bulk and there was no technology that could create uniformly spaced dotted (perfect circles) patterns on clothes. Creating perfect circles and evenly spacing them by hand was almost impossible, even though some tried to create these kinds of dotted patterns, all they could create was blotchy patterns that reminded the people too much of these diseases.

If you have read or watched Shakespeare’s Othello, you would know that Desdemona’s spotted handkerchief leads to tragedy in the play (Othello was written in the 16th century, so it might not be as relevant to the topic, but I thought it's just an interesting choice by Shakespeare at that time.)


In non-western cultures, the Dotted pattern did not have had as much of a negative significance as it had in Europe. It was actually pretty opposite. Dotted patterns represented magic and male potency.


Polka Dots & The Dawn of Its Popularity:


How did something that was associated with such deadly diseases come to be such a popular trend in fashion? This question is what makes the whole thing so fascinating.

During the mid-19th century, the diseases were eradicated, and they stopped associating the patterns with the diseases. Also, the advent of sewing machines helped in creating uniformly spaced dotted patterns.


But that does not mean Polka dots just became popular because of the end of epidemics or the advent of sewing machines. There are a number of events spread out across the mid-19th century and 20th century which led to the popularity of these patterns. We will go through those and try to create a timeline.


The Polka Dance Craze of 1835:


1835 in Europe is where it all started. A dance of Bohemian origin called the Polka dance started gaining popularity on an international level. The craze for the dance was so much that the companies started creating polka-themed merchandise to profit out of the craze. The merchandise included polka pudding and the ever-popular polka pattern itself. While the dance itself faded over time, the popularity of the Polka pattern remained.


Miss America wears a Polka dot Swim suite in 1926:

After the whole craze of 1835 that started in Europe, we saw the polka pattern resurface in America on a swimsuit. Norma Smallwood, the then Miss America. As soon as the photograph of Norma Smallwood in a polka dot swim suite was published, the polka pattern saw an increase in its popularity. One of the reasons why Norma Smallwood wearing it had such an effect is that she was the first Native American ever to be crowned Miss America.


Disney Introduces Minnie Mouse in 1928:


In 1928 Disney introduces Minnie Mouse. Though the character in the cartoon wore plain dresses, she was shown wearing polka dot dresses in the posters and prints. Believe it or not, Minnie Mouse wearing polka dots had a hugely positive effect on the polka pattern.


Frank Sinatra releases his first hit “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” in 1940:


After the craze of the 1830s, the polka dance craze resurfaces in 1940, thanks to Frank Sinatra’s release “Polka Dots & Moonbeams”. The resurfacing of the Polka dance led to the resurrection of the Polka dots craze.

Polka dot clothing even reached the haute couture runways of Paris, when Christian Dior debuted his “New Look” line in the 1940s, which heavily featured dotted fabric.


“Itsy Bitsy Tennie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Releases 1960:


After the resurgence of the Polka dot in 1940, polka dots started resurfacing again in 1960 when Brian Hayland’s Itsy Bitsy Tennie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini became popular. We all know how pop culture has always had an effect on the fashion Industry.


DC Comics releases a villain character called “Polka Dot Man” in 1962:

While the song helped bring back the Polka Dot trend in 1960, DC Comics helped keep the trend by introducing a villain called Polka Dot man in its comic books.


Beyond the 1960s:


There was no major event that happened after the 1960’s that added to the popularity of Polka Dots. Tough the peak popularity of Polka Dots in the 1920s, ’40s & ’60s is what gives it retro connotation.


I personally don’t think that Polka Dot ever required any major event to resurface after the 1960s. Looks like it is now, here to stay.


Recent Events:


In 2019, Zara released a frock with polka dots pattern which went viral to the extent that people started calling it “The Dress”. This frock even has its own Instagram handle called hot4thespot. Sometimes, it just becomes hard to comprehend the popularity of something. I believe this was the first time ever when a dress got so viral that they decided to create an Instagram handle of its own.


Conclusion:


It is believed to some extent that Fashion designers constantly keep reworking in order to revive them. Most fashion designers are believed to try to profit from nostalgia. I would not blame them; we millennials are stuck in Nostalgia and looks like we can’t get over it.


Many fashion experts are of the belief that it's this nostalgic touch that has kept the polka dots popular to date.


I would love to know your thoughts on Polka Dot’s popularity and what you think are the reasons for their popularity.


If you believe I have missed out on some crucial information or event, please do enlighten me in the comments section and I will update the post.



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