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Friday, October 12, 2012

Why Do We Call Polka Dots Polka Dots?

Polka Dots have been around for a very long time. It was the Gypsies in Spain who started the whole polka dot craze, but they didn’t call them polka dots. The equally spaced and uniform sized white dots on fabric actually represented the moon which was quite special and important to gypsies.

Polka dot fabric was, and for the most part still is, the preferred fabric of Flamenco dancers.

Flamenco vs. Polka
Flamenco is an art form which developed over centuries with Gypsy, Moorish, and Andalusian roots. Flamenco music dance became popular in the early 19thy century in cafes.

It was another dance, the Polka, which popularized the polka dot.

In the mid-19th Century America had gone absolutely dotty for the Polka. The Polka is a simple lively dance often associated with Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Slavic nations and is considred to be of Bohemian origin. The etymology of the word “polka” is a little unclear. In Polish the word “polka “ is basically “Polish woman.” Polka maybe a corruption of the Czech word “pulka” meaning half which makes sense when referring to the half steps involved in dancing the Polka.

Godey’s magazine in 1871 had one of the earliest recorded uses of the term polka dot.

Dots, disease, sex, magic and mysticism
In medieval times people didn’t wear polka dots. It’s difficult to get polka dots evenly spaced without a machine. Random spots were associated with diseases like the plague, leprosy, small pox, syphilis and the measles. Polka dots also create figure-ground confusion. Medieval people read the colors in clothing in layers. They could not distinguish which was the first and which was the second layer. For this same reason, stripes were also taboo.

Bushman in South Africa use dots to represent male sexual virility. According to the article “Seeing Spots: From lepers to paranoia, the twisted history of the polka” in Slate Magazine, the more densely packed microdots show the concentrated, magical potency inside a shaman's body.

Banda tribe of the Central African Republic and the Lega people of Democratic Republic of Congo paint adolescent boys with white dots for male-initiation rites. Young men of the Lega are adorned in dots and sent to knock incessantly at a specially constructed polka-dotted door (keibi ) as a test of his piety and persistence. His persistence is eventually rewarded and he is allowed in and presents gifts to his father. Everyone goes dotty and paints themselves in dots to pay homage to the keibi , whose dots represent the leopard. The leopard may frighten goats and other animals, but the young hunter is not afraid. The initiation ends in a whirling, energetic dancing blur of dots.

From the 1590s to the 1720s wealthier ladies used dots of black cloth to cover blemishes or scars on their faces in a practice known as patching. Around the mid 18th century following the French revolution richly brocaded fabrics were ditched in favor of crisp, clean motifs on plain cotton fabrics. Popular polka dot designs from the time look minimalist and modern.

A dot by any other name
It was because of the polka fever, which at its peak lasted from 1840-1890, that manufactures decided to cash in on this craze. They coined the phrase Polka Dot and suddenly polka dots and polka were everywhere! Polka hats, polka jackets, polka gauze, polka curtain ties, and of course polka dot fabric. Of course, polka dots have nothing to do with the polka but folks went absolutely dotty for anything polka dot. By the late 19th century polka dots were showing up on clothing for both men and women. Polka dot lore says the British used polka dots to hide Morse code during World War I.

The polka may no longer be popular, but the polka dot has staying power.

Polka Dots in Clothing
Polka dots are often found on retro and vintage clothing styles, especially 1950s style. It’s almost de rigueur for retro loving fashionistas to have at least one polka dot item in her wardrobe. Polka dots seem to rise and fall in popularity but never completely go out of style. Polka dots were even popular with men. Now men’s polka dots seem to be limited mostly to neckties.

In 2006 polka dot clothing was very popular fad in the United Kingdom. The fashionable sported polka dot skirts, dresses, scarves and tops. Polk Dot pencil skirts were very popular.
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