Polka dots have oft been considered one of fashion’s most fanciful patterns — a playful fabric print for the young and young-at-heart alike. The term “polka dot” was first spotted in American magazines around the late 1800s, dubbed for the polka, the Eastern European dance that was popular at the time. The flirty filled-in circles immediately sparked a pop culture revolution. Over the next century, polka dots would pop up on everything from Minnie Mouse’s skirt to Frank Sinatra’s 1940 jazz standard “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” to women’s dresses in the 1950s. And Brian Hyland’s 1960 number-one hit “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was one of the most popular tunes of the decade.
Connecting the Dots
Today, polka dots are experiencing a big resurgence in fashion circles, turning up in whimsical versions on purses, pants and even shoes. No longer are polka dots the sole domain of the cute and dimple-cheeked, but they are now embraced by the sexy and sophisticated modern-day working woman.
“There are two things happening right now in pop culture that are giving polka dots the spotlight,” says New York-based style expert and fashion commentator Mary Alice Stephenson. “The first thing is Katy Perry. The second one is ‘Mad Men.'”
When singer Perry was photographed heading to an event in a navy polka-dotted frock, which she stealthily accessorized with a rose brooch and a thin belt, it breathed new life into an old pattern, notes Stephenson. “Mad Men,” the critically acclaimed TV series set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s — the secretaries are meticulously dolled up in the styles du jour — has further cemented the polka dot’s mainstream comeback. And when first lady Michelle Obama donned a long-sleeved polka dotted dress during an interview with Matt Laurer on the “Today Show,” the segment made fashion industry headlines.
“Today, women who are making a difference in the world are wearing polka dots,” says Stephenson. “Oprah, famous economists and writers — strong women everywhere, no matter what their age — are expressing their femininity.
“Historically, women of a certain age who wanted to be super successful in their careers sort of ‘beiged out’ their wardrobes,” says Stephenson, citing the bevy of 1970s and ’80s women’s retailers whose stock consisted of stodgy brown, black and neutral colored apparel. “After work you could be the girlie girl and look pretty, but in the boardroom, you could not get your glam on. Nowadays, women understand that it’s OK to be their sexiest and their most feminine and still be powerful and be perceived in an authoritative way.”
The Modern Age
Of course, like anything else in popular culture, there are always updates and improvements on past trends. Today’s polka dot is a collective echo of various memorable eras in fashion history.
“When I think of polka dots I mainly think of clothes from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” says Wanda Soileau, owner of Playclothes, a vintage boutique in Burbank, California, that specializes in clothing collections from the 1940s to 1960s — Playclothes’ merchandise has been featured in episodes of “Mad Men”. “Polka dots were really big in the late ’40s and ’50s right after World War II. Everything became more fun and playful. The more playful designers were feeling, the bigger the polka dot became.”
Today, Soileau is seeing a resurgence of both big –1940s — and small — 1950s — polka dots on contemporary clothing, especially dresses and skirts.
“It’s about using the same basic design and changing it up,” says Soileau of the polka dot’s ongoing size transformation. “The same designs have really been around forever, so you’ve got to look for ways to make them fresh, to give them new life by changing their size, color and the boldness of the texture.” Now get out there, have fun with the trend, and make your own history.