Spotting Polka Dots in the World & History

The polka dot is a round dot repeated to create a (regular) pattern, typically on fabric. It’s a pattern you would typically see on women’s dresses in the 1920s. However, the polka dots have since broken free from their bikini reputation and fashion-cage to ambush other design media from furniture to wall décor to simple day planners. Most people can recognize those little spots dotting the world, but not nearly as many know their origin or even how complex the polka dot has become.

Polka Dots

HISTORY

According to one article that quotes Jude Stewart’s book, Patternalia, polka dots were, at one time, “symbols of supernatural potency and moral uncleanliness” for certain tribes around the world. Stewart also explains that the polka dot pattern is, not so surprising, a remnant of a European polka craze (yes, the music) in the mid-1800s. The automation of printing made the pattern very easy to print and so it became popular in the early 1900s. It became even more prominent when Minnie Mouse wore her dotted dress.

The pattern wasn’t always called polka dot even though their popularity came out of the polka movement. Some people called them Dotted-Swiss and thalertupfen (German which relates the pattern to their currency, thaler).

Although the dots began on dresses, when their popularity flared up again in the mid-1900s, they were added more to paintings, comic strips, and other clothing, such as tights, shoes, and gloves. Designers even began to pop them onto other patterns with similarly bubbly color schemes, like blue/green and orange/pink. They also started to appear on athletes’ clothes as a way to make a statement and draw attention. According to David Wolfe’s article, this pattern is a perfect example of how fashion and design “moves forward by constantly repeating” itself.

TYPES

The polka dot didn’t begin as a single dot in a consistent pattern. Polka dots started as just a few dots on a piece of fabric. They then grew to the typical black-and-white pattern you see on dresses. However, the polka dot is not limited to one size, color, or alignment even within a single design.

Photo by Elizabeth S. Hansen

Some polka dot patterns are large circles, all in different colors. Some are small sections of a single polka dot pattern patched and stitched together with other spotted pieces.

Photo by Elizabeth S. Hansen

And then there are the polka dot patterns that aren’t dots, but instead are a shape or image that mimic the polka dot pattern, from bows to skulls to fruit. You can see even more polka dots on this Buzzfeed article.

The polka dot design has also made an appearance in foods, such as the popular candy dots, which are solid, little sugar dots on long rolls of paper. There are also the chocolate discs know as nonpareils that have little candy dots all over their dome.

INFLUENCING THE WORLD

Polka dots might be the most prominent in fashion, but their spotted hypnosis extends to the world of art and beyond. They not only affect the world of design, but artists and designers also use them to make a statement and to point out the need for change.

According to one article, artist Yayoi Kusama uses the motif of polka dots in such a way. She has performed and organized ticketed polka dot orgies, naked anti-tax happenings, anti-war protests and other staged productions. Kusama also uses the dots as a way to deal with her own mental health problems.

Yayoi Kusama: I Who Have Arrived in Heaven by David Zwirner

Even athletes use polka dots, specifically the polka dot jersey as a part of the Tour de France, which appeared in 1975. This jersey represents “winner of the King of the Mountain,” and is among a few different colors of jerseys for this event. It represents the best-placed, under-25 riders in this competition.

Even though there aren’t many other people who use polka dots so prominently to such a degree, they have no limits other than your imagination. And even then, they can break free into the very world around them, from leopards and Dalmatians, to ladybugs and flowers.

Animals in nature use their spot and dot patterns to act as camouflage, warnings, and even mating signals. For example, snow leopards’ coats allow them to hide from prey among the snow and plants of their habitat. Butterflies’ and moths’ spots can appear as large eyes to frighten predators away. Or the distinct spotted pattern of the monarch butterfly can warn of its poisonous nature. For some birds, such as peacocks, the brighter and larger the spots, the healthier and more attractive it appears to a female.

Peacock by Madison Berndt

No matter the nature of the dot, it has been in fashion and even nature and has evolved to indicate different social customs, such as femininity, warnings, and even to affect societal issues.

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