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Will polka dots bring prosperity?

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 28, 2022 5:00 am

The dot represents many things, but for the Philippines, it’s the pattern of choice for one’s wardrobe come New Year’s Eve. It’s all part of the association of round things with prosperity, which everyone wants to attract at the stroke of midnight. 

Coins, the obvious representation of fortune, had their origins in the country as piloncitos or bulawan, gold beads used as currency during pre-colonial times from the year 900 AD till the earliest years of the Spanish colonial period. 

Having 12 globular fruits around to welcome the coming year is just as important for abundance, probably an influence from the Spaniards, who eat 12 grapes to represent the months of the coming year, in the hopes of attracting luck; as well as the Chinese, who have oranges and tangerines, which resemble the words for “gold” and “wealth.”

A couture gown by Dennis Lustico

The circle, to begin with, is a universal symbol of unity, spirituality and life since it has no sides or corners and therefore no beginning or end. Pythagoras considered it the most perfect shape that stands for eternity. Circles conveyed magic, male fertility, and the triumph of the hunt.

In the Congo, they have a supernatural potency in bushman tribal art. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the çintamani consists of three dots arranged in a triangle connected by lip-shaped lines, representing a wish-fulfilling pearl—a gift from Buddha.

Custom piece by Rosanna Ocampo

Dots seem to be the perfect pattern to adorn garments, although in Western fashion, they weren’t always the luck-bringing, fun-looking motifs that they are today. During Medieval times, in fact, they were associated with the plague and with all sorts of diseases like measles and boils, which took the form of dots.

From 1590 to 1720, however, a new style called “patching” (moucheron or “little fly” in France) emerged in Europe, where a dot of black fabric was used to cover a blemish or enhance the beauty of otherwise flawless skin. The mouche on the face reflected how fashion’s role in high society was no longer just a marker of status but one of style and self-expression.

“Mallo” top and “Peggy” wrap skirt by Steph Verano

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, mechanized weaving made it possible to produce identical, evenly spaced dots across a length of cloth so that by the 19th century dotted fabrics appeared more frequently, known as Dotted Swiss or the French Quinconce, which described the diagonal pattern of the dots on the five-side of dice. The Germans had thalertupfen (from thaler, the German currency till the late 1800s) for the large, coin-sized dots on fabric.

By 1830, when polka dancing became popular in Bohemia (the current Czech Republic) and later in Europe and the U.S., “polka” became so fashionable that marketers started adding the word, which means “Polish lady,” to various items like pudding, curtains, hats and shoes.

Disney’s Minnie Mouse

In 1857, the Godey’s Lady’s Book coined the term “polka dot” for the first time to describe a dotted muslin scarf. Hence, the beloved polka dot was born, becoming a pattern of wholesomeness. Norma Smallwood, the first Native American to win Miss America in 1926, wore a polka dot swimsuit; while in 1934, the child star Shirley Temple twirled in a dotted dress in Stand Up and Cheer. In 1935, Walt Disney dressed Minnie Mouse in yellow dots for the first time (the iconic red and white only came in 1941).

The three syllables would also bounce their way into songs, like Frank Sinatra’s 1940 Polka Dots and Moonbeams and in Brian Hyland’s 1960 song about a modest girl’s shyness in wearing a revealing Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

Terno in jusi by Philippine National Artist Salvacion Lim Higgins (Slim), late 1950s, at “Imagining/Imaging” exhibit ongoing at the Metropolitan Theater

Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Taylor would make the pattern popular in the ’50s. By 1954, Christian Dior’s “New Look” had its bestselling version in the print and Hubert de Givenchy would do his own spotty pieces the following year.

Jean Shrimpton wearing a futuristic look in the 1960s

In the Philippines, Salvacion Lim Higgins executed a terno in the late ’50s using jusi with the trendy dots. In the ’60s and ’70s, designers like Biba would use it in a new spirit of freedom, which would be personified by models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. 

Yayoi Kusama and her dots of infinity

Artists also recognized the playful potential of dots in the ’60s when painters like Yayoi Kusama embraced it as a visual object in its own right. The impressionist Georges Seurat, of course, explored it earlier in his pointillist technique in his 1884 painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte” but Roy Lichtenstein would allow them the freedom to breathe in his cheeky portraits of modern life, like the 1965 “I... I’m sorry.”

Balenciaga haute couture gown, 1964

In the ’80s, its boldness would epitomize the Decade of Money. It was a key motif in fashion designer Carolina Herrera’s pieces and even figured in the box of her first fragrance in 1988.

Princess Diana was a big fan of polka dots for her wardrobe, being photographed in them often, even when she was leaving the hospital clutching her newborn son, Prince William, in 1982.

William’s wife, Kate Middleton, would replicate the look three decades later when she wore a similar dress bringing home their firstborn, Prince George.

Pierre Balmain haute couture collection, 1987

Through the ’90s and the aughts, brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Balmain embraced the beloved dots and in the recent SS2023 collections, the trend shows no signs of waning. With the Philippine market for New Year alone, the pattern is a guaranteed perennial.

So, will it bring prosperity to the wearer? Perhaps, like talismans, their vibrations may inspire activity that brings about abundance. They are, after all, symbols of energy and change. As Yayoi Kusama once said, “A polka dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing, polka dots become movement.”

With qualities like that, how can the new year not be an auspicious one?