So, polka dots. I understand polka (I’m from Wisconsin after all). I understand dots. Whence, however, polka dots? This question arises because Flipboard just posted a photo gallery of Yayoi Kusama installations. If you’re not familiar with Kusama, she’s a Japanese writer and multimedia artist whose works often feature a “thematic interest in psychedelic colors, repetition, and pattern,” e.g., polka dots.
But what’s the story on polka dots, the origin story that is? Merriam-Webster’s no help. All it can offer is “a dot in a pattern of regularly distributed dots in textile design.” Wikipedia’s not much better. It vaguely notes that the name must have come from an association with the dance. This is based on the OED definition, which says of “polka,” “on account of the popularity of the dance, polka was prefixed as a trade name to articles of all kinds, e.g., the polka curtain-band (for looping up curtains), polka-gauze, polka hat, a pattern consisting of dots of uniform size and arrangement [polka-dot — notice the hyphenation; oh those Brits].
But then Wikipedia also says that flamenco dancers often wear polka dots, so why aren’t they flamenco dots? The latter seems much more akin to haut couture than the former: “Darling, which flamenco dots should I wear today? The Versace or the Stella McCartney?” Right?
Ah, here’s something with more substance: “A Brief History of Polka Dots” by Chloe Pantazi. Chloe skips over the thorny origin issue at first and gets right to the important stuff: fashion. She thinks America first fell in love with the dots when they saw pictures of Miss America of 1926 wearing a polka-dot swimsuit (it’s okay to hyphenate if it’s an adjective, what’s the term, clump?). Then Minnie Mouse donned her red polka-dot dress and bow in 1928. Then Frank Sinatra sang “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” in 1940 and in the same year The Los Angeles Times gushed, “You can sign your fashion life away on the polka-dotted line, and you’ll never regret it.”
Next came Christian Dior, Marilyn Monroe in yet another polka-dot swimsuit, Brian Hyland singing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” and then in the 1960s Yayoi Kusama, whom you already know thanks to me.
Chloe finally swings back to the origin: the polka. For some reason beyond my ken, “polkamania” apparently swept through Europe in the mid-19th century (sort of like the Black Plague, I guess, except, well, polka dotted). When that happened, she writes,
enthusiasts claimed the polka jacket, then the polka hat (neither of them spotted), and finally, the polka dot. There is only a tenuous connection between dot and dance, yet surely the two are linked — it’s possible that polka dots reflect the same regulated, short bursts of energy that inflect the polka itself.
Tenuous might be the understatement of the year. Whatever its origin, the polka dot has held sway long enough. I’m going to start a movement for renaming them flamenco dots. I begin my argument for the change by offering this comparison. Polka songs come with titles like the “Beer Barrel Polka” (“Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun — remember that one? No? Good.). Or better yet “In Heaven There Is No Beer” or “Have Another Drink on Me.” See a trend here? Flamenco songs, on the other hand, have names like “Echale Guindas al Pavo” and “Romance de Chavalillo Torero.” Do I know what these mean? Heck no but who cares? At least there’s no “En el cielo no hay cerveza” to be found anywhere. How much more convincing do you need?
If you want to weigh in on this so-not-a-debate, please do at #flamencodotsrule. And now, that’s our show for tonight. Goodbye.