When you think about cheerful patterns, the polka dot is one of the first that comes to mind. On celebrities ranging from Lucille Ball to Princess Diana, polka dots have become a huge part of fashion’s vocabulary. Even when Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss haven’t been singing about yellow bikinis with the circular design, the dots have had a major influence on culture. But why are they called polka dots?
The history of polka dots begins with the polka music craze—or more specifically, polka dancing. The dance, which comes from půlka, the Czech word for “half” (referring to the half steps used in the dance), began to sweep up dancers throughout Europe and the United States in the mid-1800s. In 1857, Godey’s Lady’s Book made the earliest known mention of the term polka dot. Before then, dotted patterns were sometimes called quiconce or dotted Swiss.
What do dots have to do with dancing? It’s not entirely clear. In her book Patternalia, Jude Stewart explains that the connection is murky, and most likely had to do with products being marketed as polka-related when the fad was at its height. Before then, the wearing of polka dot was somewhat of a taboo in Europe. Hand-sewing was inexact and most found it impossible to sew perfectly rounded, evenly spaced circles, which created a blotchy pattern more closely associated with diseases like the plague and smallpox. (In African countries, on the other hand, dots symbolized magic and hunting, according to Slate.)
Sewing machines made the circle pattern possible. This allowed manufacturers to put the dots on everything, from curtains to dresses and other products—any item they thought would sell better if it was connected to the polka craze. And the pattern stuck, growing in popularity throughout the years, despite the polka fading from popularity.
In 1926, the first Native American woman to be crowned Miss America, Norma Smallwood, wore a polka dot swimsuit, bringing the trend into the modern era. In the 1940s, Walt Disney redesigned Minnie Mouse’s dress with polka dots, and The Los Angeles Times wrote, “you can sign your fashion life away on the polka-dotted line, and you’ll never regret it.”