Why Are They Called “Polka Dots”? Why is it Called a “Bikini”?

Jerry Anderson December 13, 2015 Comments Off on Why Are They Called “Polka Dots”? Why is it Called a “Bikini”?

Starting in the years between 1830-1835, Europe and then the United States were struck by a dance craze originating with the Bohemian and Czech peoples of Europe. The new dance, the “polka, “was named after the Bohemian word “polka,” which means, simply, a Polish woman. (NOTE: The Bohemian word “polak,” which means a Polish man, gave us the racial slur “polak” that is still used today.) Another theory on the origin of the dance’s name indicates that it derives from the Czech word “pulka” (meaning “half”) because of the dance’s quick, short half-steps. Take your pick.

Bohemian or Czech dancers doing the “polka.”
With the tide of European immigration to the U.S. in the 19th century, this new dance spread quickly and became wildly popular. The peak of the “polka” craze lasted for two generations from 1840 to 1890. In many areas of the country the desire to “polka” became so strong that polka clubs began to organize so their members could satisfy their desire to engage in this trendy and spirited dance. Members were very proud of their clubs and, somewhere, someone came up with the idea of adopting a uniform pattern on clothing worn by women who were members of these polka clubs. Women chose a closely fitted jacket that was widely worn and made of evenly spaced dots placed on a field of fabric of a single color to signify their membership in a polka club.

Vintage 1880s Victorian “polka dot” jacket worn by a member of a polka club.
.By 1880 material was being sold in fabric stores that had this same “dot” pattern in various colors (both the “dot” and the “field” on which they appeared varying in color). In this way the “polka dot” was born. The dance remained in vogue for so long that manufacturers took advantage of “the polka rage” by creating numerous products and naming them after the dance. Polka hats, polka curtains, polka fabrics, all kinds of polka clothing and other items, sold very well and made businessmen and merchants small fortunes. Most of these products have disappeared, but the polka dot pattern has remained to this day a popular fashion statement.

Miss America, 1926, in a polka dot swimsuit. Note that the dots are not evenly spaced on her suit. Question: are they legitimate polka dots?
The polka dot design remained popular into the 20th century and received some promotion of its popularity from the “pin-up girls” of WW II. A noted “pin-up” of the war years was that of a minor actress /starlet/model named Chili Williams (see picture below) who took the following “pin-up” picture which became one of the most popular of WW II. The picture was simply referred to as “The Girl in the Polka Dot Swimsuit.”

The question that comes to mind on seeing this picture is, “Is this a bikini?” The answer is, “No, it isn’t.” Her belly button is not showing, it is not too revealing, and the term “bikini” had not yet been coined.

The popularity of “polka dots” was not hurt by Katherine Hepburn wearing this dress in her classic 1942 film “Woman of the Year.”

World War II had ended. The United States was conducting atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific. One of the islands (an atoll, actually, a small, uninhabited island made of coral jutting out of the sea) used for an atomic test was the Bikini Atoll. Following is a You Tube video of the event itself in 1946.

Later in 1946 in Paris, France, a fashion designer named Louis Reald premiered a skimpy two-piece bathing suit to the public. He named it the “bikini” because the sight of this minimalist bathing suit would cause men the same sort of devastation that the Bikini Atoll suffered when the atomic bomb was detonated on it. He created both fashion history and a tremendous controversy.

Louis Reald with his 1946 creation: the “bikini.” Notice the “polka dot” pattern. Also, the belly button is out in the open.
Here is the story of the bikini in shortened form, but with much interesting information. (Note: remember the Chili Williams picture of her in the polka dot swimsuit that did not show her belly button.)

Model Mecheline Bernardini showing off the bikini on the French Riviera in 1946.
The appearance of the bikini on the beaches of the French Riviera after 1946 caused a scandal. Many hotels on the Mediterranean coast found the swimsuit so objectionable that they refused to allow their female guests to wear bikinis on the beaches fronting their establishments. Specifically, they said that the two-piece bathing suit could not be worn on their beaches. French women were outraged and struck back. They discarded the tops of their bikinis and appeared in public topless, thus not technically violating the rules of the hotels. This might be called an early appearance of the “mono-kini” notable in the 1960s.



Polka dots, with the help of Chili Williams, Katherine Hepburn and others remained an important element in fashion after the war. The picture below shows a fashionable late 1940s polka dot dress design. (Note: By this time the term “polka dot” had been separated completely from its origins. “Polka dots” referred, in the mind of the public, as simply a pattern or design.)

Late 1940s polka dot dress.
In the early 1950s , another pop-culture figure helped enhance the popularity of “polka dots.” Marilyn Monroe was only a studio “starlet” at the time (her fame would come later), but she had some photos taken, and subsequently published, of her in a polka dot swimsuit. Here is one of them:

Note: This IS NOT a bikini.

Even Minnie Mouse wore polka dots.
Then, in the summer of 1960 a 16-year-old singer named Brian Hyland (someone akin to the Justin Bieber of his day) released a song called “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” that sold several million copies. It was played countless times on the AM radio stations that dominated the airwaves of the period. Here is a rendition of the song from You Tube:

1960s teen-age heart throb and singer Brian Hyland.
The durability and popularity of the “polka dot” pattern makes for quite a few examples of visual interest. The present day is full of illustrations :

Versace/designer polka dot platform high heels.

Polka dot finger nails.

Singer Katy Perry in a polka dot dress.

But I have travelled far from my starting point concerning the “polka” dance craze that started in Europe and travelled to the U.S. in the 1830s. And, I realize, that not once have I shown an example of the “polka” (the dance, that is) during this entire post. Let me rectify this. Here is a clip from The Lawrence Welk Show in the 1970s in which accordion player Myron Floren plays what could be considered one of the most popular polka tunes of all time, “The Pennsylvania Polka.” Myron plays the song, the singing group sings the lyrics and a dance couple appear to perform a ballroom style version of the dance. It looks as if they are having a lot of fun.


The male professional dancer who appears in this clip is Bobby Burgess who was one of the “Mouseketeers” on The Mickey Mouse Club TV show in the late 1950s. Here is a picture of him with Annette Funicello in their Mouseketeer costumes.

Bobby Burgess with Annette
.And now the video clip:

This appears to be a never-ending subject. Wherever you look you may see a reminder of this story and its connection to the past. Immigration, dancing, fashion, swimwear, atomic bomb tests, the bikini, pop music, Katie Perry,… but I will stop now. I’m hungry. Think I’ll go get some:

They really “Hit the spot!”

And then I’ll sit down and relax and perhaps do some light, light reading. Maybe I could finish:

Perhaps I could watch some TV. “Dancing With The Stars” might be on, and look at the costume Taylor Swift wore when appearing on the show!

Or maybe I’ll just daydream about polka dots!!

A classic fashion statement. Forever?

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