The Polka Dot Dress Circles Back Around From the runways to the red carpet, the polka dot dress is back in a big way for 2014. Designers like Michael Kors, Juan Carlos Obando, and Oscar de la Renta are featuring them prominently in their spring collections. A-list actresses such as Amy Adams, Emma Stone, and Zooey Deschanel have been rocking them at premieres and award shows. Hip online retailers such as ModCloth and eShakti are also embracing the trend, and you can’t walk through the mall without encountering a dizzying display of dots. Why the newfound popularity of the polka dot, and in particular, the polka dot dress?
The truth is, the polka dot dress has never really gone out of style. 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. 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 (polka-gauze, polka-hat, polka-dot, even polka ham!), but in the end, only the dance and the fabric pattern have retained the name. At any rate, the polka dot frock certainly does seem to reflect the dance’s buoyant, lively spirit. The polka dot truly first garnered real notoriety in 1926, when 18-year-old Miss America Norma Smallwood was photographed wearing a polka dot bathing suit, sparking a national trend in swimwear. Soon afterward, in 1928, Walt Disney introduced Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend Minnie, sporting a perky polka dotted dress and hair bow. The pattern became a symbol of youth, vitality, and innocence—really, of America.
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 stride. 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 (think Twiggy’s drop-waisted scooter dress), then psychedelic or bohemian in the 70s. It was standard-issue office wear in the 1980s, and embodied the rockabilly retro trend of the 1990s. Today the polka dot dress is revisiting its 1950s/60s heyday, with fit-and-flare styles in crisp cottons and poplins. Polka dots have stood the test of time, and are represented in some of the century’s most iconic dresses. Who could forget Audrey Hepburn, legs extended joyfully as she coasted on a bicycle, in her black and white dotted jumper? Or Julia Roberts, in the brown-and-cream sleeveless number that turned her from an LA streetwalker into “Pretty Woman”? Or Lucille Ball, who wore polka dotted dresses so often they became an inseparable part of her persona? The Lucille Ball doll made by Franklin Mint is sporting a navy and white version under a starched white apron (made famous in the “Sales Resistance” vacuum-cleaner salesman episode), and a brown dress with pink dots she wore on the “I Love Lucy” show in the 1950s fetched a whopping $168,000 at auction in 2013.
What is it about the polka dot that continues to captivate us? Part of it is surely psychological—asked about the characteristics we associate with polka dots, most of us would answer, “fun”, “lighthearted”, or “carefree”. Clinical psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner is an expert on “the psychology of dress”, or, the underlying reasons for people’s clothing choices and what they project about the wearer, and how donning different clothing can alter the wearer’s attitude. In her book You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You (DeCapo Lifelong Books, 2012), she takes common wardrobe issues and advises readers on positive changes they can make. If you wear mostly neutrals and skimp on accessories, Baumgartner says, you might be projecting that you’re stuck in a rut, or be afraid to call attention to yourself. Her advice? Start incorporating prints and patterns such as polka dots to shake up your routine and stimulate your brain. Woodbury University Fashion History professor Louise Coffey-Webb concurs that our pattern choices can be an indicator of our personality type—and can sometimes reveal something unexpected about us. Though we may perceive polka-dot wearers as flighty or scattered, she says, her research shows that they are actually dynamic multi-taskers, with heightened ability to focus and the capability to work on multiple projects at once. Just think—Lucille Ball might’ve found herself able to stop grapes and work the chocolate assembly line perfectly well, if she’d tried them simultaneously!
Whatever it says about us, the polka dot dress itself seems here to stay. In his Little Dictionary of Fashion, originally published in 1954, Christian Dior had this to say about dotted garments: “I never get tired of dots. Tiny dots are most suitable for petite figures. Big coin dots are good for tall people. And if you are not-so-slim you need to choose lighter dots on a dark background and not vice versa. Dots are lovely for holiday clothes—cotton frocks and beach outfits—and they are gay, too, for accessories. According to their color, so they can be versatile…Black and white for elegance, soft pinks and blues for prettiness, emerald, scarlet, and yellow for gaiety; beige and gray for dignity.”
Ultimately, then, the appeal of the polka dot dress lies in the beholder. And you will surely behold them for a long time to come.
- We Should All Wear Polka Dots (ktlivin.wordpress.com)
- Polka dot fashion frenzy…. (angeljacksonblog.wordpress.com)