A brief history of the polka dot, from C19th England to Brighton's Pipettes

They're taking over. Look at the Trash queue; the girls and boys are covered in them, all matched up with dainty gloves and cock-eyed hats. The Elegant Gothic Lolilas love them too: big ones, little ones, climbing up their ruffly umbrellas and all over their ruched bodices. They're blooming across the metre-long cuffs of local laptop hero Simon Bookish's shirt-sleeves; and decorating Maggie Gyllenhaal's spankable form in Secretary.


And it's not just 'the kids' they're attacking; no dismissing this as a youth-cult thing. The grown-ups can't get enough of them either, as seen in the veracity with which they snap up goods from houseware designer Cath Kidston, whose saucepans, bathtowels and oven gloves have all succumbed to their inexorable creep. They are all curves and whimsy; unthreatening, kissable - the quintessence of cute. Yes: POLKA DOTS! And they're coming for YOU!

They've already got The Pipettes. The Pipettes are a seven-piece band from Brighton, and when The Pipettes play live, the boring old boys stand at the back of the stage, while the pretty fingerclicky girls twirl at the front. The girls are all simultaneous hand moves and harmonies and shaky pom-poms and flicky hair. It's enough to make you want to smack your lips.

The Pipettes girls wear matching polka dot frocks, with draped necklines and cinchy waists and elbow-length dolman sleeves and skirts with little pleats. 'What do polka dots mean to you, Pipettes?' 'Fun! Light-hearted! Cute! Unthreatening! Feminine!' the girls reply, gorgeously. And when the Pipettes sing, it's as though the spirit of the polka-dot is channelling right through them: recidivist, traditional. 'Tie me, tie me, tie me to the kitchen sink!' the girls implore, with eyes full of yearning.

This, you see, is what the polka dot wants. The polka dot hankers for a simpler time of unthinking conformity, whether that's the 1950s or the years before the Married Women's Property Act. The polka dot was born in mid-nineteenth century England, as the nation became obsessed with dancing the polka. So extensive was the fad that unrelated objects started being named after it - puddings, shops - and fabrics bearing uniform sized, evenly spaced dots.

Since then, the fabric has cropped up in song with suprising frequency, from the classic track about the itsy bitsy bikini to Ween's 'Polka Dot Tail' and Daniel Johnston's 'Polka Dot Rag'. And now it's come for The Pipettes: imbuing them, possessing them; making them its mouthpiece.


three girls in polka dots



Our heroines need to be careful: history is punctuated by those who've partied with the polka dot and and come off worse for wear. Hard to believe that the dot-loving Cyndi Lauper was once considered a serious threat to Madonna in the Queen of Pop stakes, or that Strawberry Switchblade were in 'real' punk bands before they became one-hit wonders, loved for the strength of their look and then coldly forgotten.

Avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama explores the dot's dodgy side, seeing a frightening infinity in the dot's endless repetitions. 'A polka dot can't stay alone: two and three or more polka dots become movement. Our earth is one polka dot among the million stars. Polka dots are a way to infinity'.

For Kusama, the dot has the power to obliterate whatever it covers, destroying individuality. Her 'Self-Obliterations' series of works involves covering everything with polka dots: cats; horses; the artist herself; policemen; bankers - symbolically obliterating them in the process.

Whether driving people back to the domestic sphere, condemning them to invisibility, or obliterating them altogether, that cute little dot has a malevolent side. Consider yourselves warned. People of Britain; Pipettes of Brighton: watch your polka-dotted backs!





W H E R E ?
Relief Fund For Romania, Clapham.

W H E N ?
June 2001.

W H A T ?
Trying on a pinstripe man's suit jacket for that Patti Smith look. I slide my hands into the pockets in order to slouch attractively before the mirror. My hands touch something cold, plastic, wet. A knotted, used condom full of sperm. Neeurgh. How gross! Just this once, the shop let me use their staff's hand-washing facilities. Thank fuck.

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T H R I F T   F A C T I O D

Then again, there's always BARTERING. Have a clothes swap in your front room and give the leftovers to charity. No cash involved. Revolution!!!!