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Curious Minds Podcast: What do a DC Villain and Marilyn Monroe Have in Common?

Discover why we use patterns and what they have to say with Curious Minds, an original podcast by Domestika

Curious Minds is an original podcast by Domestika that explores the curiosities and untold histories of the creative world.

Each week we’ll bring you a new episode, interviewing experts and creatives as we dive into the unusual origins of the images, patterns, and designs we take for granted.

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From stripes and camouflage to plaid and polka dots, patterns are everywhere. But while you might be drawn to patterns for aesthetic reasons, they do much more than just please the eye.

With the rugged reputation of things like camo printed clothing and the perceived flirtatiousness of an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, patterns can communicate something about the personality and intentions of the person wearing them.

But when it comes to polka dots, the message they communicate isn’t always so simple.

Representing everything from disease to modernity, over the last two centuries dots have managed to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But where did this expressive pattern come from? And how, as other trends come and go, has it managed to stick around?

In our fourth episode of Curious Minds we interview artist Allison McKeen, “Patternalia” and “Revelations in Air” author Jude Stewart, and Leigh Wishner, from the FIDM Museum in LA, about how (and why) a collection of dots has so much to say.

You can download the transcript of this episode at the end of this article.

Though it might be hard to imagine today, dots were once actively avoided in European fashion.

“A funky little aspect of the polka dot’s history is that you really didn't see a lot of dots on fabrics [before the Industrial Revolution] because there were societal connotations that they were unclean… there were a lot of associations with disease… such as leprosy,” explains Wishner.

That changed once it became possible to mechanically control the printing of dots, making them look intentional rather than accidental. Polka dots were also given a boost thanks to the polka music craze that swept through Europe during the mid 19th century.

As the lively Czech dance took over ballrooms, clever marketers were eager to cash in on its name recognition, slapping the word “polka” in front of all types of products. There were hats. There were jackets. There was even a polka pudding. And, of course, there was the dot.

But even as the polka dance craze, and all those other polka products, faded away, the popularity of polka dots endured.

Appearing everywhere from Frank Sinatra’s first hit song, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, to the polka dotted bandana of Rosie the Riveter, the pattern permeated pop culture, developing multiple associations. To some, it came to represent the innocence of characters like Minnie Mouse. To others, the fashion and values of 1950s housewives. And to others, like readers of DC Comics familiar with the character Polka Dot Man, the pattern adopted a kitsch reputation.

In fashion, polka dots could take on a haute couture or more mass market connotation, depending on the size, density, and color of the dots, as well as the silhouettes they were paired with.

Curious Minds Podcast: What do a DC Villain and Marilyn Monroe Have in Common? 6
Marc Bohan for Christian Dior Spring/Summer 1981, Courtesy of FIDM Museum

Polka dots also became a potent shorthand for artists like Roy Lichtenstein, and became the calling card of others like Yayoi Kusama. Polka dots in art in turn influenced fashion, and designers like Carolina Herrera made the pattern part of their signature.

Curious Minds Podcast: What do a DC Villain and Marilyn Monroe Have in Common? 8
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“The really cool thing about patterns is the way they take this incredibly simple, little motif, and by varying the spacing or the size of the motif, you can do a million different effects,” explains Stewart.

To discover how designers and artists continue to reinvent this classic pattern, and why, as other trends come and go this one has managed to stick around, you can listen to Curious Minds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Click on the link below to download a transcript of this episode. You’ll be able to view it once it’s available in your Downloads folder as a PDF.

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If you'd like to read more stories behind the images, patterns, and designs we take for granted, check out our other blog posts for Curious Minds, an original podcast by Domestika.

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