A Comprehensive History of Polka Dots Throughout the Centuries

street style   day 7   new york fashion week february 2020

Christian VierigGetty Images

Polka dots are so fun to wear and definitely add a graphic element to any ensemble, but maybe you’ve always wondered how they came to be—or where the name even originated from. For you curious fashion historians out there, they’ve actually been around for centuries and (surprise!) the name comes from the polka dance. Read on to see its evolution and just how much the print has had an impact on, not just fashion, but society as a whole.

Table of Contents

1700s

There was a lil thing you might’ve learned in history class called the “Industrial Revolution,” which began circa 1760, so before this time the textile machinery wasn’t sophisticated enough to create symmetrical circles on fabric. The sewing machine was invented in 1790 (although the first working machine wasn’t created until the mid-1800s), which finally made the creation of perfectly round and evenly-spaced dots possible. The pattern was originally associated with the plague and uncleanliness, though, until it became more of a fad in the next decade.

1800s

But why was it called polka? It derived from the Czech peasant dance of the same name, which picked up some steam in the 1840s and continued through the 1860s. There were all sorts of “polka” branded items that came out of the dance craze—like polka pudding and even polka suspenders—but the “polka dot” pattern was the one that really stuck around into the present day.

unidentified little girl wearing a polka dot dress

A not-at-all creepy image of a girl wearing a dotted dress circa 1870.

Sepia TimesGetty Images

Allegedly the first-known mention of the term in print appeared in the women’s lifestyle magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1857:

“Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear, surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots.”

1900s

The print continued to rise in popularity throughout the 20th century. Notable times it appeared in the ’20s was when Norma Smallwood won Miss America in 1926 (the first indigenous woman to do so) and wore a dotted swimsuit and when Minnie Mouse debuted two years later. According to Disney, the dots were left out in films because they were difficult to animate, but her iconic spotted skirt was drawn in still images.

marilyn monroe posing with women of the armed forces

Marilyn poses with women from the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

BettmannGetty Images

They’re also synonymous with flamenco dresses and have been historically used on the ruffled designs since 1847, according to this flamenco website. The pattern had a huge impact on cultural moments during this era: Frank Sinatra released a song “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” in the ’40s, Marilyn and Lucille Ball sported them in the ’50s, they became part of the mod fashion movement with Twiggy and Goldie Hawn in the ’60s, and icons like Prince, Princess Diana, and Julia Roberts donned them into the ’80s and ’90s. (You can see these examples in all their dotted glory in the photo gallery above.)

2000s-Today

Of course, polka dots are still around today, and they generally trend more during spring and summer months. And while the black/white combo might be the most classic and popular color way, the print can work with any other hues. Let these street style stars and the spring/summer ’20 runways prove just how modern and sophisticated the dots can look!

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