If I say “polka dots” you likely imagine dots of the exact same size evenly spaced on a highly contrasting background. And I’ll bet you’ve never thought of them like that before. But why do we call them that?
In medieval times, dots were sometimes considered taboo, or sinister. Remember the black spot of Treasure Island? That could be a reference to this idea. It’s also possible that dots were shunned because they resembled some of the dread diseases that spread through Europe during those times.
Dotted fabric is difficult to make by hand, especially in a uniform pattern. The 19th century’s advance in textile manufacture made patterns of uniform dots trivial, in fact, they’re easier to produce than some more traditional patterns. Bolts of cloth with uniform dots began to appear in stores somewhere in the mid-19th century. And here things get murky.
At the same time the cloth came out, polka music was very popular. German-speaking people often wore a hand-made dotted cloth similar to what we now call polka dots, and they were also associated with polka music. When the machine made fabric became available, they wore that. It’s possible that the two just merged in people’s minds, or it could be that people wore colorful dotted clothes when dancing to polka. At any rate, the name “polka dots” was coined and has stuck with us.
For the record, it seems you can never have just a polka “dot.” It’s always plural unless being used as an adjective, because it’s the uniform relationship that the dots have with each other that makes them “polka dots.” One dot is just a circle until context is added.
After World War II, America became obsessed with polka dots, perhaps as a contrast to the olive drab that dominated the previous 10 years. In a way, polka dots were reinvented, and their meaning in American culture took on an air of frivolity and fun. But there isn’t now and never has been a direct relationship between polka dots and polka music.
The same is true for the Bikini. Bikini is an island in the South Pacific that was used for nuclear testing in the 1940’s. The swimwear called “bikini” was named four days after this testing began, and French designer Louis Réard hoped his abbreviated bathing costume would cause a nuclear reaction in the fashion industry.
At first, it didn’t. The suit was seen as obscene and was officially declared “sinful” by the Vatican. (Ironically, a similar design was popular in Biblical times.) And then it was combined with polka dots.
In 1960, Brian Hyland wrote a song about a woman who dons a Bikini and is too embarrassed to be seen in it. It was called “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” and it was a top 10 hit in many countries. The song was meant to poke risqué fun at the idea of wearing such a thing, but the public had a different idea. As the song’s popularity grew, people began wearing the abbreviated swimwear more often. There are even some who say the wave of surf movies popular in the1960s came about because of this song, and the bikini. If you doubt the song’s impact, just take a look at Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition which features nothing but bikinis, often with polka dots.
Why was it a “polka dot” bikini? Likely because the pattern was popular in 1960 and Hyland needed three syllables in that space. The song’s pattern fits perfectly with the words “yellow polkadot bikini.” The song also fits well with the 2/4 rhythm meter common to polka music, and it even begins with a polka-esque ditty, which finally brings 19th century fabric styles, popular music, and irradiated islands together at last.