- Unlike solid black or red, paisley, or stripes, there is something uniquely appealing and endearing about wearing polka dots.
- Polka dot print's persistant popularity may be due to both endearing associations and positive perceptions.
- A researcher said that polka dots have remained endearing partly because of a growing tolerance for and commodification of harmless cuteness.
Have you ever noticed that you have that outfit that everyone seems to love? Wearing it out often means the difference between being invisible and being irresistible. What is it? You might jump to conclusions and guess it would have to be a red dress. Yet it might, in fact, be polka dots.
The Perseverance of the Polka Dot
Fashions come and go, but a few favorites are here to stay. From Betty Boop to Minnie Mouse, there are few distinctive patterns more noticeable than the polka dot. But can everyone wear this pattern with poise and confidence?
Some people don’t think they can. Hillary Clinton revealed a photo of herself in a polka dot dress as part of a New York Times piece entitled “Hillary Clinton as the Fashion Police: My Polka-Dot Dress Should Be Arrested,” showcasing (and disowning) several outfits as part of her “least flattering fashion moments.”i
But the truth is, even if you don’t recognize the value if you wear polka dots, be prepared to be noticed and remembered—fondly. Unlike solid black or red, paisley, or stripes, there is something uniquely appealing and endearing about a woman wearing polka dots. Whether stemming from personal nostalgia or classic appeal, there appears to be power in the polka dot when it comes to attraction.
Polka Dot Pattern of Popularity
According to an article in Medium chronicling the history of patterns in fashion, polka dots were first mentioned as a pattern in 1857 by a women’s lifestyle magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, referencing a scarf.ii They noted that in 1926, Miss America Norma Smallwood sported a polka dot swimsuit, followed by Disney’s Minnie Mouse appearing in a red polka dot dress and matching bow in 1928.
As the history of polka dots has evolved, so has their use in research. Kaitlin A. Graff et al. In a piece entitled Low-Cut Shirts and High-Heeled Shoes (2013)iii studying increased sexualization over time in the way magazines depicted girls, examined sexualizing characteristics such as low cut shirts and high-heeled shoes, as well as childlike characteristics, including polka dot print and Mary Jane style shoes.
But the popularity of the polka dot appears to transcend scientific study. Its enduring popularity may be due to both endearing associations and positive perceptions.
The Impact of Innocence
Steven Connor, examining the affective impact of different types of patterns over the years, noted that polka dots “have maintained their position partly as a result of the growing tolerance for, and commodification of childishness or harmless, irresponsible cuteness in the modern world.”iv He recognizes the “heyday” of the polka dot pattern during the 1960s, when it appeared on everything from miniskirts to shoes, from hats to handbags. He cites Brian Hyland's 1960 hit song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" as continuing the tradition of “making sexuality safe with babytalk.”
Yet adult women continue to wear polka dots in the modern world, both personally and professionally, with much success from the classroom to the board room. Could the enduring popularity of polka dots stem from the endearing, emotional responses polka dots inspire?
One thing is for sure. We often learn when we are dressed for success based on how other people respond to us. If a polka dot dress consistently generates the most compliments, conversation, and expressed confidence, you have identified a winner. Wear it more often.
[iii] Graff, Kaitlin A., Sarah K. Murnen, and Anna K. Krause. 2013. “Low-Cut Shirts and High-Heeled Shoes: Increased Sexualization across Time in Magazine Depictions of Girls.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 69 (11–12): 571–82. doi:10.1007/s11199-013-0321-0.
[iv] Connor, Steven. 2003. “Maculate Conceptions.” Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture 1 (1): 48–63. doi:10.2752/147597503778053144.