Before getting too far into dots, don't forget to check out the brief history of paisley too! OK ok, now snuggle up, readers. I'm about to tell you a beautiful and passion-filled story about the history of polka dots. You think you're not interested?? Oh you are. Or at least, you should be.
Once upon a time, I was having a conversation with my friend Myra while also trying to write a blog about sewing a cute clutch. I was typing "polka dot" when I rudely interrupted Myra, who was probably telling a great story, in order to ask her, "How do you pronounce polka dot?"
After a short and confused silence she said, “Poka dot.” Yes, that sounds normal. But I had another question:
“Then why is there a lurking silent L?”
Myra’s a genius, so she said, “Probably because the dance is spelled with an L.”
Hmmm... Good point...good point. But why is the dance spelled with an L and why oh WHY would a dance get its own dot motif?? It seemed pretentious to me. Plus, I kind of want my own dot motif. Where do you sign up to get your own dot motif?
Myra was pretty sick of me drilling her about dots and probably wanted to finish her great story, so she said, "You should write a blog post about the history of polka dots." Myra, you aren't a sewer, and I'm pretty positive you were just trying to shush me politely, but, you should know by now that you can't say things like that to me. I WILL research and write a blog post all about the history of polka dots. AND you better read it cause I'm doing it aaaaall for you. Even if Harvard won't be impressed that you will ace History of Polka dots, I will be.
Photo credit: David Merett
Photo cred: Town & Country
When Polka arrived on the scene (the dance, not the dot) in the mid 1800s, Europe went kind of crazy. They gave themselves the very scientific diagnosis of “Polkamania,” and created a jacket and a hat that were supposedly associated with the dance. The next logical thing in the branding process, right?
That hat and jacket had a very distinct pattern sprinkled all over it – the dot, of course! The connection between the dot and the dance is a little far-reaching (they were raving Polkamaniacs, after all), but the story goes that the polka dots reflected the short burst of energy that make the polka dance what it is.
A quick visual...
(This is where I insert a video of polk dancing, but, SHOCKER, all of the videos are really old and and pretty terrible quality...but also strangely mesmerizing and magical...Now that I'm watching it, I think I could watch it all day. At least, any time I start to feel anxious, I'll be turning this on.)
Back to our story...
Because Americans can’t stand being left out (the entire country has always had FOMO, for sure) they picked up on the polka dot craze immediately. Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was apparently the awkward name of a really great women’s magazine, featured a polka-dotted scarf in 1857. After that, American women caught the bug as well.
As the 19th century rocked the dotted scarf, the 20th century pushed this spotted pattern to new fashion heights – many of them being much more risqué. By the 1920s, you only had to look at the season's trendiest women's swimsuits to know how to wear your polka dots.
1940's Swimsuit Fashion
Photo Cred: Town & Country
Marilyn Monroe, 1951
Photo Cred: Town & Country
How Polka Dots Really Got Famous
The 1960's hit, Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini song by Brian Hyland, definitely gave the pattern more than fifteen minutes of fame, but there are some other big appearances that helped boost the polka dot’s popularity as well.
- 1962: DC Comics created the dot’s own superhero/villain, Mr. Polka-Dot.
- 1965: Bob Dylan donned a green polka dot shirt on the cover of his single “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
- 1967: They made a museum appearance in Frédéric Bazille’s painting “Family Reunion.”
- 1979: Polka dots reached rockstar status when they appeared on Randy Rhoads' Flying V guitar.
But let’s be real. Polka dots didn’t really make it big until 2016 when they appeared on the back of my Mod Melons quilt.
I’m just kidding. Kind of.
Ready to Shop the Polka Dot Look?
If you're looking for the widest selection, Fabric.com is the best online option. Here's a direct link to their quilt-weight polka dot fabric. If you are loving my over-sized Mod Melons dots, you're in luck! They are called Pop Dots by Birch Fabrics and you can get them here – Get Pop Dots fabric!
If Fabric.com's enormous selection is a bit overwhelming (it's a bit too much for me...I could lose days.), check out The Fat Quarter Shop. They have 24 hour flash sales every day, and a great selection of polka dot prints too!
OK, Polkamaniacs, time to tell us about your favorite polka-dotted project (or swimsuit) in the comments below!
47 thoughts on “A Brief and Entertaining History of Polka Dots”
My absolute favorite blog post ever!! So glad to see the Mod Melon quilt make an appearance! If you ever design fabric, you have to create a Suzy Dot or at least a Srappy Dot!!
I think the Scrappy dot is a must. 😉
Oh, goodness, Suzy. That was amazing! I never knew that there was an actual connection between the two. Makes sense but I never considered it and never heard it. I danced the polka some when I was younger. Of the traditional dances it’s probably my favorite. I think maybe we need to add Polka Dot Maven to your list of specialties! 😍😘
I at least need a shirt that says “Polka Dot Maven” on it. You’re too funny!
I found your missing L!!! I say polka. I’ve never heard anyone say poka dots. I’m kind of baffled!!! Is it a Midwest thing?
Maybe it is! Oh wow…it looks like my sleuthing still needs to be sleuthed!
I’ve been listening to this video for the last 5 minutes and have gone a little mad. I still don’t know!!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwptmsH2oyA
Same here! I have always heard the L – never without!
Love this, Suzy! I am backing a quilt with Tula’s FreeFall…lotsa dots there! I also designed a bikini quilt…quilt is made…pattern coming soon! xo!
I am still wondering why “polka”, the dance is pronounced including the ‘l’, and the “polka dots” is pronounced without the ‘l’.
By the way, the Polka is the first dance I learned! So fun!
That mysterious “L” still remains a bit of a mystery. However, I have been pronouncing “poLka” dot wrong for the last 30 years, so maybe some people say it in both!
Suzy, Suzy, Suzy!!!!! You out did yourself this time!!!! Love it, but at this time in life; Depends to the rescue if I even TRIED to do that dance!!!!
love polka dots regardless of its origin! Thanks for the history lesson!!
Suzy, you are the best! You deserve everything happy and wonderful because you bring so much laughter and joy to so many people! Thank you!
That’s so sweet, Lynne! 🙂
I second this! Even if I now have polka music in my head from watching that video! You are just awesome!
… and tears in my eyes from laughing and watching the video!
I made a polka dot cushion cover once upon a time. Oh, and some Christmas tree decorations in polka dot fabric. They were small Christmas trees, because you hang trees on trees, right? Oh, dear…
Hahaha! Getting into the Christmas spirit is all about trees on trees, and maybe with a little holly on top. 😉
Polka dots and pearls are two of my favorite things! And being originally from the Pittsburgh area, I love polka too! Thank you for doing this very interesting research!!! I love your posts, and your quilts are beautiful too!
Suzy, this is an excellent research report! You are on the way to a Pulitzer.
In 1967 I made a blue and white polka dot outfit for summer wear. It was pedal pushers (now called Capri pants) and a crop top, all trimmed with bias ruffles.
That sounds adorable! Any chance you still have it and want to lend it to me? 🙂
Ace history of polka dots… 😁 Are you friends with Reese, too? Haha
aaaand now I want to watch Legally Blonde again. Thanks Suzy (sincerely, it’s been too long since I’ve watched it 😉
This video is giving me LIFE!!
hahaha ME TOO!
OMG it’s TOO brief, I love polka dots and wear it all the time if I can. I even have a polka dots pinterest board! 🙂
BTW, is this post just your excuse to share the polka dot quilt backing? It is stunning though.
They were actually dancing in circles….polka dots! I love polka dots! Thx for story!
I have to say, I must be weird, because I’ve always pronounced the “L” in polka dots.
Confession: I watched the video for quite a bit. Why is nobody smiling? One woman was even fussing at her partner. I’m gonna need to see this in RL.
Oh, I’ve always said polka.
Aussies don’t call it that. I can’t remember what they call their dots, but it’s something else….
Oh my gosh! The polka! My German grandpa danced the Polka! Not sure he had white shoes though😂😂
Oh my, you forgot the most important person rocking polka dots. And she was wearing them starting in the 1920’s. Minnie Mouse! Her classic red dress with white polka dots. What a trendsetter! (Can you tell I just got back from DisneyWorld?)
How could I forget the lovely Miss Minnie?? I even named a cat after her 🙂
I am making a polka dot quilt in a dot inspired pattern now! Trying to use all of my polka dot fabric in my stash!
I just stumbled onto your blog and I’m loving it. As a polka dot fanatic, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I’ll be back! Happy quilting to you.
Happy to hear that. Thanks!
I never occurred to me that there could be an association between “poka” dot fabric (one of my favorite patterns) with “polka” dancing! I first became aware of poka dots in the early 1940’s when I began a collection of Story Book dolls which came in pretty poka dot boxes. I still have the dolls but sadly not the boxes. My favorite search in fabric shops is poka dot fabric with dots in a color that contrasts with the background. Poka dots adds lively fun to every quilt as your blog brought a chuckle from me tonight! February 7, 2018 11PM
Such a fun read! For my favourite polka dance of all time – check out ‘Shall we dance?’ from the King and I. Oh to be 8 years old and dancing round the living room in dresses from my Gran’s dress up box! If only I could try on Deborah Kerr’s enormous gold meringue dress now…… 03:20 ish https://youtu.be/QgVPnWmUqd4
I absolutely ADORE that musical! And the costumes! Ooooh the costumes are to die for!!
Oh, my goodness! My three sisters and I were the only little kids I ever knew to polka around the living room. How fun to imagine there was at least one other spirited child doing the same thing. 😊 Your comment flooded my head with memories, just like Suzy’s blog post did. Oh, and I have always said polka with the “L.”
You weren’t alone Suzanne! My sister and I also nailed kicking over the sofa whilst performing ‘Good Morning’ from Singing in the rain 😬. We had quite a telling off for that one!! (Now I truly understand my mum’s anger because it was, and still is, a much loved Liberty sofa from the late 60s. I didn’t appreciate the fabric back then…… 🤦🏽♀️)
I’m starting on a Ribbon Box quilt with polka-dotted ribbons. It’ll be the bomb!
I don’t say the L in polka or polka dots. Maybe a northwest thing? 🙂
I wish more of the dancers in that video were wearing polka dots but the fashion was mesmerizing all the same! Great blog!
I love the mod melon quilt. My favorite melons are without seeds, favorite quilt is with the cute little seeds. The history of the polka dot was informative. Who knew? Most of all I love the dancing video. After a long day at work, it brought a smile to my face and a tap to my toes! LOL