Visual Culture

The History of the Polka Dot, from Minnie Mouse to Yayoi Kusama

Katy Kelleher
Apr 3, 2018 6:01PM

Before there was Twitter (where new words are now often coined) and before there was Instagram (the home of sartorial early adapters), there was Godey’s Lady’s Book. In an 1857 issue, one writer described a muslin scarf, ideal “for light summer wear,” as being “surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots.”

This was the first time the words “polka dot” appeared in print, but it wouldn’t be the last. For decades, the lifestyle magazine touted the wearability of the suddenly inescapable motif. Somehow this term—which simply smashed two popular things together, the polka dance and dotty spots—became the official descriptor for the pattern. (The dots never had anything to do with polka, though they did later come to be associated another type of dance—flamenco.)

Of course, dots didn’t spontaneously appear on the scene in the 1850s. A century before the polka dot received its appellation, a textile company in St. Gallen, Switzerland, began producing sheer cotton fabric adorned with small raised dots. Known as “Dotted-Swiss,” it was just one of several types of regularly spaced spotted designs; there was also quiconce, a French word that describes a cluster of five dots, and thalertupfen, a German term for fabric that had large coin-sized dots (named for Germany’s currency at the time, the thaler).

Yet none of these earlier patterns became as popular as the polka dot, simply because there wasn’t the technology to create evenly spaced and consistently sized spots on a large scale until the industrial revolution. By the time the 1850s rolled around, the middle and upper classes were no longer wearing homespun clothes. They could now buy fresh outfits each spring, investing in the patterns and colors of the day. Fashion had become (somewhat) accessible, and polka dots were on the cutting edge.

Yayoi Kusama
Self Portrait (TWAY), 2010
Damien Hirst
11-Eicosenoil Acid, 2002

Like nearly every industry, the art world was also experiencing seismic shifts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and some of these burgeoning movements involved fields of round spots. But unfortunately for our purposes here, the rise of Pointillism doesn’t map neatly onto the rise of the polka dot. It is tempting to say that art followed fashion, or that the two realms discovered the power of the dot together, but that isn’t quite right.

Pointillism came from Impressionism, and Georges Seurat, the creator of Pointillism, was more inspired by contemporary scientific theories of vision and light than he was by any fashion trend. He completed his so-called “manifesto painting,” A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in 1884. It shows 48 well-dressed middle-class types lounging around a suburban park; a woman fishes, a man leans back on his elbows, a girl examines a bouquet of flowers, and a dog sniffs at the grass. The entire scene, from the water to the sky, is made up of thousands of colored dots: distinct pricks of red, green, indigo, and zinc yellow.

Critics did not like the painting, and they were the ones who initially derided it as “Pointillism.” (As with many who launched art movements, Seurat didn’t chose the name—but, like “polka dot,” the writer-coined term stuck fast). Much of the critics’ ire was directed toward Seurat’s scientific-inspired approach—those with supposedly good taste did not like how heavily he leaned on Ogden Rood’s 1879 book Modern Chromatics in the development of this new way of painting.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was criticized for being too scientific, too rigid, too formulaic. Seurat was, in modern terms, seen as a bit of a try-hard. His labor is evident; you can see, right on the canvas, why it took him two years to complete this intricately layered scene of repose. In a 2004 piece about a Seurat exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, New York Times writer Holland Cotter notes that “La Grande Jatte is more like a textile than a painting, a kind of 19th-century Bayeux Tapestry…And it is overworked. That’s the final point: it acknowledges change in its obsessive attempt to resist it.”

But even though Seurat had placed dots at the dead center of the new Impressionist movement, dots remained somehow in the background. Seurat was using them as a means to an end—to visually mimic the human brain’s incredible ability to see beyond each blot of color, to merge thousands of visual data points into a cohesive image.

In fashion, the polka dot was enough—it didn’t need to create a larger picture or signify anything other than what it was. And, yet, signify it did. Few patterns carry as many cultural associations as polka dots, and few are so distinctively gendered.

“Polka dots took a subversive turn in early 20th-century America,” writes Jude Stewart at Slate. He argues that polka dots seemed “clean and utterly simple,” imbued with “a lively wholesomeness appropriate for children.” The pattern became common on consumer goods, including bed sheets, bassinets, and nightgowns.

However, Stewart argues that it’s the simplicity of the pattern that makes it so feminine, an idea that is interesting, yet not entirely persuasive. He writes, “The tiniest of tweaks—packing the dots more tightly together, say, or allowing them to jostle and overlap—could produce a woozy sense of acceleration, even an exhilarating disorientation. These two qualities combined—child-friendliness with intoxication—tinged the polka dot with a distinctly female aura, mother and sexpot rolled into one round body.” Perhaps—or perhaps polka dots read as feminine simply because the pattern was so fashionable, and fads are often coded female even when they have nothing at all to do with the female body itself (round as it can sometimes be).

While polka dots enjoyed popularity in Europe, midcentury Americans claimed the pattern as their own—with a little help from Hollywood costumers. Polka dots rose to prominence on screens both big and small. In 1928, Minnie Mouse hopped onto the screen wearing her signature dotted dress, and in 1934, Shirley Temple twirled in a polka-dotted dress in Stand Up and Cheer.

As the decades wore on, the three syllable utterance also wiggled its way into American culture through songs: In 1940, Frank Sinatra recorded his famous ode to the pattern, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and in 1959, Brian Hyland sang his famous novelty song about a modest girl at the beach, ashamed of her revealing yellow bathing suit.

Still, many wore the spots proudly. Lucille Ball wore polka dots, as did Marilyn Monroe. Years later, Julia Roberts wore a brown polka-dot dress playing an undercover sex worker in the 1990 film Pretty Woman, a costuming choice that harkened back to the (now familiar) tamed-sexpot trope so artfully inhabited by Monroe. And in 2012, Zooey Deschanel proclaimed defiantly on an episode of New Girl (a show in which she plays a self-effacingly twee elementary school teacher) that she “rock[s] a lot of polka dots” and wouldn’t be ashamed of the choice, no matter how other characters might judge her.

By this point, the polka dot had become a symbol not only of Americana and femininity, but also that particular performative form of femininity that subverts the sweetness and childishness expected of (some) adult women by embracing it. In the 2010s, polka dots could be worn in earnest—or they could be paired with a middle finger, a big hair bow, and a Judith Butler quote. It seems fitting, then, that as cultural discussions of femininity and women’s rights rise again to the forefront, we’re seeing a resurgence of the polka dot in high fashion. Like the pussy bow, the polka dot feels unapologetically feminine, but unlike those floppy neck binds of matronly fabric, the polka dot skews younger.

Artists themselves recognized the playful potential of the pattern as early as the 1960s, when painters like Yayoi Kusama begin embracing the abstract pattern as a visual object in its own right. For Kusama, the polka dot became a potent symbol and a reoccuring decorative motif, and while she does use figurative elements in her work, some of her most striking installations rely solely on outsized spots to create a sense of joyful displacement. In sharp contrast to Kusama’s colorful installations, Op Art painter Bridget Riley employed a muted palette in works like 1968’s Nineteen Greys. Where Kusama’s work feels exuberant and playful, Riley’s piece is subtly disorienting. She tweaks the print slightly to create optical illusions, a process that calls to mind Seurat’s almost clinical approach to dot-painting.

But the greatest heir to Seurat’s style was probably Roy Lichtenstein, a Pop Artist who used Ben-Day dots to create cheeky portraits of modern life. Lichtenstein’s comic book-style illustrations didn’t allow the polka dot freedom to breathe and expand, but instead corral the pattern inside thick black outlines. His stylized pieces are deceivingly lighthearted; Lichtenstein was simultaneously poking fun at American iconography and elevating it.  

In more recent decades, the polka dot has appeared quite often in queer culture; in the 1980s, performance artist Leigh Bowery posed frequently in polka dotted suits and hoods, and painter Ross Bleckner covered massive canvases with curved variations of the print. Writing for Bomb, Ted Kerr suggests that Bowery used the pattern to subtly represent Kaposi Sarcoma, an HIV/AIDS-related cancer. “Polka dots as an AIDS signifier continue to be seen,” Kerr adds. He cites contemporary works that include constellations of dots reminiscent of the Center for Disease Control’s attempts to map the spread of HIV/AIDS through tracking sexual encounters. In more recent works, he concludes, “the dots become less about the illness per se, opening up to interpretations of possible kinship among marked and often forsaken communities dealing with HIV and negotiating visibility: reflecting, hiding, and haunting.”

More recently, of course, superstar artist Damien Hirst has been linked with polka dots (or spots, to use his terminology). While some might consider Hirst a latecomer to the polka dot party (I would), that’s not the only reason critics are skeptical of his current output. The painter has worked with gridded rows of dots since the late 1980s, but his gestural, dot-heavy 2018 series “Veil Paintings” is more problematic. The Guardian points out the “uncanny” resemblance between the “Veil Paintings” and the work of Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye. (Hirst claims he was unaware of the Australian dot-painting tradition.)

Yet this current art world kerfuffle does speak to the strange ubiquity of the polka dot: It’s been claimed by so many cultures and subcultures. Dots are divisive. They’ve been used to create artistic expressions of scientific ideals, to point toward marginalized groups that are “hiding in plain sight” (as Kerr puts it), as a way of reclaiming childishness, establishing femininity, or asserting one’s adulthood. In some contexts, the polka dot is a way of nodding toward a shared music taste and aesthetic (like rockabilly), while in others, it’s a way of gesturing toward more traditional and conventional expressions of female sexuality (Pretty Woman).

Perhaps Kusama has it right; maybe polka dots aren’t that feminine at all, but rather symbols of energy and change. “A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing…Polka dots become movement,” she wrote in her 2005 book Manhattan Suicide Addict. “Polka dots are a way to infinity.” Or, at the very least, polka dots provide another way to begin understanding the infinitely diverse expressions of human gender, identity, and selfhood.

Katy Kelleher