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.