Polka dot dresses made their cinematic debut in 1928 when Disney Cartoons illustrators fashioned Minnie Mouse in a black and white dotted skirt for her role in “Steamboat Willie.” They continue to hold a place in fashion history that remains unrivaled by any other design or fad.
Although these spotted dresses were photographed primarily in black and white, they rapidly gained fifties fashions popularity to enjoy particular favor with television costume designers. Lucy’s and Ethel’s wardrobes included many of these cheerfully printed fabrics in shirtwaist styles.
Prior to technological advances in printing methods, many early fabrics were splattered with blotches or irregularly shaped spots. A series of minute raised dots on a transparent organza or tulle fabric is referred to as Dotted-Swiss. Neither are considered true polka dots.
Common theory is that the dot’s name derived from the Central European “polka” music and dance craze which swept the world in the mid-1800s. The term polka became a marketing sensation with most of the polka labeled furor fading before the end of the 19th century. However, the fabric titled so by Godey’s Lady Book continues to be called polka dots.
It may only be coincidental that some polka dancers wear dotted costumes. However, the traditional flamenco dancers’ costume does include polka dots and ruffles.
While the proliferation of modern day polka dots is most frequently attributed to Christian Dior and his 1947 Dior New Look line, they were spotlighted in photographs, catalogs, and magazine advertisements as early as the mid 1800s.
Among Dior’s designs introduced in his 1948 Envol line is this petrol blue polka dot two-piece dress recently acquired by the Fashion History Museum of Cambridge, Ontario. You may read about the accession of this museum worthy garment from Past Perfect Vintage here.
Heeding the fifties consumer’s polka dot love cry, designers Balmain, Lanvin, Fath, and Balenciaga began to offer polka dots in evening wear and couture suits. Many of these beautiful designer gowns can be seen on our Living Fifties Fashion Polka Dot Dresses Pinboard.
The very meticulous American Fashion Design Norman Norell insisted his designs have woven rather than merely printed polka dots fabric. He also politely instructed his seamstresses to change the color of thread to match the polka dots when hemming the garment.
As the polka dot fever continued to spread, the fun and happy spots surfaced not only on 1950’s dresses but on sportswear, accessories, and children’s clothing.
The mania has extended into the 21st century with fifties polka dot dresses, swimsuits, and footwear popular sellers in thrift, second hand, and online vintage shops everywhere.