The Untold History Of Polka Dots (And Other Graphic Patterns)

Ever wonder why we think of polka dots as feminine and demure, or stripes as masculine and speedy?

Glance around any department store and you’ll find a veritable buffet of textile patterns that you can rattle off without a second thought: plaid, stripes, paisley, seersucker, fleur-de-lis. Each comes with its own rules (you only wear seersucker in summer) and associations (polka dots are in the women’s section). But as deeply familiar as we are with these patterns, we’re still fairly in the dark about their origins and backstories.


As author (and Co.Design contributor) Jude Stewart reveals in her new book, Patternalia, these backstories are as varied and complex as they are revealing.

Polka dots, for instance, were symbols of supernatural potency and moral uncleanliness before they adorned itsy-bitsy bikinis and sundresses. The iconic red and white stripes on barbershop poles allude to the bloodied bandages barbers used back when their jobs consisted of haircutting, bloodletting, and tooth extraction. Stewart eventually brings us back to our current perceptions of patterns, but not without leading us on a captivating journey across cultures, time periods, and contexts.

“I was interested in finding the specific story [of individual patterns] and digging in deeper,” Stewart says. “But also problematizing that personality and finding out what the limits were.”

We talked to Stewart about the experience of writing her book, as well as some of the most surprising bits of pattern trivia she discovered along the way.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and how you started writing this book?

I’ve been a graphic-design journalist for a while, and my previous book is called Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color. It’s super-marinated in all these stories about color, and what I found while researching was that I was bumping up against the world of textiles, and I got really interested in how presynthetic dyes are made. Before we could make it in a chemistry lab, we would make it from beetles, and there was a whole international trade that enriched Spain for a long time, and that was all on the backs of beetles. In learning about that, I ended up learning a lot about textiles and running into this related idea of pattern.


At the same time I got asked to do an article about the cyclical “patterns are back” kind of thing for Print magazine. And I just realized, it hit me between the eyes, that seersucker, plaid, fleur de lis, camoflauge–I know all these names, I have know idea how I learned them.

I also irrationally had the feeling of their personalities. Stripes are speedy or decisive or athletic. Polka dots are so demure and faintly feminine. I had no idea why I felt that way and I felt quite firm in those observations. So I thought maybe I should look into this further, and then it became this big inquiry into something that I saw everywhere and had never really seen someone dig into before.

You mentioned an illogical feeling of patterns having distinct personalities, which is something you explore a bit in the book. Why do you think we have these perceptions about patterns–that polka dots are feminine and stripes are speedy, etc?

So let’s just take for example polka dots. Polka dots come from a craze in the 1840s to 1860s in Europe from polka music. There was all this sheet music that comes out of polka music, and it was very popular to learn how to polka, especially among women. Then there was a related merchandising phase, so there were polka hats and polka suspenders and polka pudding, which I have the recipe for somewhere. And polka dots was the only one that survived.

From there, with the mechanization of printing, it became a pattern that was very easy to print, and it became popularized in the early part of the 20th century. It was very clean and simple and easy to space and kind of had this round and pleasing quality. It had a very domestic air and people would think of them at the time as feminine. So these stories kind of spool out.

I was also interested in looking at: ‘Okay, well, I see this and I think of feminine, but what else is there?’ If you were to pop polka dots into Google search–not the word, but the actual dots–what would you get? And then that took me into an interesting, very different direction. There are some male initiation rituals in the Congo and there’s this supernatural potency that comes with dots that are a key part of bushman tribal art in Southern Africa.


Your book tells the untold stories of patterns, some of which have become so ubiquitous in everyday life that they’ve become almost invisible, or at least not something we actively think about. What was the most surprising thing you learned about patterns while researching the book?

What I didn’t realize was that all that I thought I knew about plaid was wrong or made up. Which does not invalidate it as a history. It makes it more interesting, though. It’s a record of people’s nostalgia.

So the story of plaid in brief is that there was an effort to subjugate the Scottish Highlands in the 1740s and it succeeded [in] a decisive battle in 1746. One of the outcomes of that is that the British banned tartan, which is the technical name for the pattern. And this was banned on pain of death, so it was no joke. Because it was banned for about 40 years and because the Scottish Highlands was sort of this romanticized place that was being crushed out of existence, there was a huge nostalgic surge for tartan and plaid, and people wanted to understand this lost pattern that was on the verge of disappearing. It’s kind of like the American cowboy–as soon as he’s not a fixture of American life anymore, everyone wants to be a cowboy.

In 1812, there was a visit from George I to Edinburgh, and it was a big deal because they were healing this historical riff with the British king going to Scotland. So all of the Scottish clan leaders were polled because they wanted to create a scene where everyone was wearing their family tartan. These leaders had to admit they had no idea what that was. It turns out that there was never a family tartan, there were always just regional tartans and families lived in certain regions, so therefore they were probably wearing that tartan.

So far, we’ve been talking about patterns in terms of textiles, even though, as you mention in the book, patterns are all around us, on many different surfaces. Why do you think that textiles have come to the fore in this subject?

I think that probably goes back to the Industrial Revolution. As I say in the book, you’re seeing patterns on all these different surfaces, but textiles get recorded a lot in this history because they were a place of a lot of technological innovation. The Jacquard loom is an advance that came along and revolutionized the possibility of what you could do in terms of patterning on textiles, and there was a lot of money to be made—because recorded history has been really interested in the Industrial Revolution and all of the technology that is wrapped up in that, so that’s just where the history has taken us.


On a personal level, I thought about this when I went to my sock drawer and thought about how all the socks came in very classic patterns. And I had no idea why there are herringbone socks. It’s very intimate, these clothes that we wear all the time. I say in the book, we’re literally wearing this history on our backs that we don’t have any idea about. We haven’t read them at all.

Patternalia is out from Bloomsbury Press on October 13. You can preorder the book here.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.