Updated: Feb 1, 2020
It’s hard to argue that the most popular and iconic vintage print is the ever-popular polka dots! From the 1920s to the 1980s, we’ve seen this simple spotty pattern emerge time and time again in varying forms. Even in modern-day reproduction clothing, polka dot patterns are vastly used as they just scream vintage style.
Back in the nineteenth century, spots were used as decorative flourishes on delicate lace fabrics, until around 1850 when printing machines became more sophisticated and could print regular repeating patterns. It just so happened that at the same time, Europe was experiencing a huge new dance craze which reached as far as the USA. This traditional Czech folk dance was called the polka, and as well as this name being attributed to the new spotty print, it was also given to other items like hats, jackets and even puddings. They even called it Polkamania!
As we know, the 1920s was all about the rising of the youth. Polka dots were a young and fun print that was embraced by many, including Norma Smallwood (Miss America 1926) who wore a knitted polka dot swimsuit. Popular culture also jumped on the polka train and in 1928 Disney introduced the wonderful Minnie Mouse in all her red and spotty glory! Minnie’s polka dot hair bow was representative of the many different accessories that were now being worn by the flapper girls, and frivolous was chic!
In stark contrast, the polka dots of the 1930s were more austere in browns, greens and navy blues. Often, dots would be printed discretely on sheer chiffons which encompassed the sophisticated glamour of the decade.
By the 1940s, couture fashion houses were beginning to use the polka dot in their designs. Still relatively demure if not a little serious, the likes of Jacques Faith and Christian Dior incorporated spotty textiles into their designs. Not least memorable was in Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection of 1947, leading the polka dot into the fabulous fifties. He once described the benefits of the polka dots in his designs: ‘According to their colour … they can be versatile … Black and white for elegance; soft pinks and blues for prettiness; emerald, scarlet and yellow for gaiety; beige and grey for dignity.’
The post-war austerity had lifted by the 1950s, and finally, the fun and frivolity of fashion returned. Polka dots, like many other prints, got bigger and brighter in the 50s and were featured on every possible garment from dresses to scarves, knitwear to shoes as well as home decor items too! There is absolutely no doubt that this era was the absolute heyday of the spot! Polka dots also worked well on screen and celebrities loved to wear them. The playful Lucille Ball was rarely seen without a spotted print and the uber glamorous Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell both wore polka dot halterneck dresses to the 1953 premiere of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The polka dots of the 1960s were very different indeed. The space-age style that was embraced by the likes of Courreges, saw unconventional materials being used in fashion such as metals, plastics and papers. This gave a new life to the polka dot pattern, taking away from pretty pastels and floaty femininity to bright, bold and edgy. Pop art also played a part in the popularity of the polka dot, and the art of Lichtenstein used tiny monochrome spots in a cartoon comic book style. Polka dots were also incorporated into psychedelic patterns that nodded toward the hallucinogenic effects of taking drugs. Fashion might not have done sickly sweet in the sixties, but it did do doll-like cuteness, inspired by the amazing Twiggy of course. Pinafores and mini dresses were spotty, as well as earrings, hats and even tights thanks to Mary Quant!
When it came to the 1970s, polka dots really did fall from grace. There wasn’t room for this simple and repetitive pattern in the intricate and experimental prints of the boho movement. Seventies fashion was romantic, whimsical and pulled from the history of centuries passed. There are the odd 70s garments in spotty prints but these are few and far between. If you adore polka dots, seventies fashion should probably be low down on your list of vintage to source!
The 1980s was never going to neglect the polka dot! Not only was it the era of excess, statement dressing; it was also the era that had a huge 50s revival! Mid-eighties style demanded attention, and polka dots covered everything from power suits to dresses, hats to handbags, shoes to blazers and everything in between. Colours were loud, bold and clashing!
Fashion moved into a very understated and simple world in the early 90s, but the polka dot was still held in high authority. In the iconic 1990 film Pretty Woman, Julia Robert’s character wore a brown and white polka dot dress to the races, demonstrating her change from prostitute to a sophisticated woman! The longevity of this simple spotty print has relied upon changes in scale and colour over the years and its success has been assured. It’s a style that will never date and one that has many more decades of style left in it.
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it and please feel free to share! Emma x