In the realm of menswear, there are a handful of classic patterns that have endured the test of time: glen check, houndstooth, stripes, and windowpanes on articles of clothing and paisley and polka dot motifs on accessories. A dotted pattern is especially versatile, so what’s the best way to wear it?
Polka dots work well with both casual and more formal outfits. In this article, we’ll review the uses of dots, spots or pois in classic style and provide some ideas on how to wear them.
A Brief History of Polka Dots in Menswear
In the history of Western dress, clothes with spotted patterns (unevenly spaced because they were hand sewn) were originally taboo because they resembled various skin diseases including bubonic plague and leprosy. However, by the 18th century, dots began to gain popularity. Several sources report that the Ultimate Dandy himself, Beau Brummell and those who followed in his footsteps frequently made use of dotted patterns in their scarves and other accessories, though I have yet to find concrete evidence of this. There is abundant proof, however, for the invention of the so-called “polka dot” in connection with the polka dance craze that swept across Europe and North America in the first half of the 19th century. The dotted pattern we know today was marketed as “polka dots” to capitalize on the mania, though the connection to the dance is unclear. Probably, the round shape is associated with the circular patterns made by couples when they dance the steps of the polka.
While the pattern of repeated dots grew in popularity for fashion, in menswear it remained (and still remains) largely limited to small-scale use on ties, scarves, pocket squares, and socks. Large dots feature on women’s blazers, dresses, and shirts but you’re not likely to see the same on classic menswear as dots convey a sense of lightness and fun, which runs contrary to the more sober style of tailored men’s clothing. However, the pattern has been worn as a measured dose of playfulness and personality by the likes of the Duke of Windsor and, most famously, by Winston Churchill. Indeed, Churchill’s polka-dotted bow tie from Turnbull & Asser was his signature accessory, worn by him from youth to old age in honor of his father, Lord Randolph, who also favored the pattern.
Considerations in Choosing Polka Dots
When selecting a polka-dotted accessory, there are several factors that affect the impression they create, namely the size of the dots, their color and their spacing.
1. The Size of the Dots
Though any sort of spotted pattern is generically referred to as polka dots, small versions are usually described as “pin dots.” “Micro dots” can also be used to refer to the same thing or can be slightly larger. It can help to picture pin dots as what it would look like if you took a pin, dipped it in color and then poked a piece of cloth with the tip: the result is quite subtle and, though they don’t disappear entirely, they almost resolve to a solid when viewed from a distance. At the other end of the spectrum, you can have quite large dots. This is definitely more casual and fun while average and smaller dots are more business appropriate. For everything up to an “average-sized” dot (and this is admittedly relative), people will see the dots but not focus on them as an obvious design feature whereas there you can’t NOT focus on them when they’re huge. So, in terms of formality, where dots are involved, size does matter!
2. The Spacing of Dots
Directly related to dot size is their density, which we can conceive of in computing terms as “dots-per-inch” (dpi). Or, you can imagine the This is how closely the dots are spaced or how much space exists between them. The higher the dpi, the smaller the dots since more of them are needed to fill the same space, whether on a tie, scarf or pocket square. In some cases, extra space is intentionally left between dots for artistic reasons.
Usually, the spacing between dots is also even and regular–for example, 1/4″ between dots–resulting in a symmetrical pattern that is pleasing to the eye. However, lovers of asymmetry can rejoice in the occasional availability of items in which the dots are sprinkled on in a random manner. Wearing a tie with irregularly spaced dots creates the impression that the wearer is artistic or rakishly enjoys defying norms. In this case, the lack of a pattern can be disconcerting, though it may attract more interest and evoke conversation.
How far apart the spots affect the color impression of the item as well. If there are a lot of spots close together, the item will seem to be mostly the color of the dots; on the other hand, when there are gaps in the pattern, the base or ground color will leave a greater impression.
3. The Color of the Dots
Clearly, as the images in this article illustrate, white dots are by far the most common in menswear. This way, whether they’re on a tie or a pocket square, they immediately work with the standard white dress shirt. Navy with white spots is especially popular for ties and the opposite–white with navy dots–for pocket squares, and the two can usually be worn at the same time. Brown and white is another pairing though gray with white is rare despite the prominence of gray in tailoring. This is because the contrast between gray and white is usually too low to make the spots stand out clearly, which opens the door for the pairing of gray and blue: blue polka dots on a gray tie, for example. Almost any two complementary colors are possible, limited only by the wearer’s taste; whatever two colors you would wear together can be found in the form of dots on a base color. Some examples are beige dots on a brown knit tie, yellow dots on a blue shantung tie, or red dots on a blue pocket square.
How to Wear Polka Dots
The beauty of polka-dotted accessories is how they lend themselves to numerous two- and three-color combinations. While white spots help to bring the white of a shirt forward into the two layers above it–in a tie and then in the breast pocket of the suit jacket above that–other colored dots can bridge the layers of your outfit in various creative ways. The beige spots on a brown tie can coordinate with a khaki Irish linen sport coat to strengthen a two-color combination. Or, the dots on a tie or pocket square can bring in an altogether different color. For example, a three-color combination can be created by wearing a Fort Belvedere burgundy tie with yellow dots along with a charcoal suit. The burgundy picks up the same color in the overcheck while the dots add a third color as an accent.
As another consideration, the color of the dots can be used to coordinate with your skin color, from brown to various to shades of beige; Fabrizio Oriani does this well in the image from earlier in the article.
1. Polka Dot Ties
The most likely place you’ll see polka dots is on neckties and bow ties, and, as you can tell from the discussion so far, there are a large variety of options. As with any tie, printed silk is the safe choice for business wear, and with these the dots are also printed. A printed polka dot is even appropriate for the formality of morning dress.
For variety, you can try something different like woven soft wool challis or silk jacquard. You can also locate shantung, grenadine or knitted ties where the dots are hand embroidered or even hand painted on since perfectly round dots cannot be woven. Because polka dots represent a small repeating geometric pattern, they are worn easiest on ties against solid shirts, but if you want to double up and wear two patterns, choose a subtle stripe, or wear a larger repeating pattern in your suit jacket, like a windowpane grid.
2. Polka Dot Pocket Squares
Pocket squares are usually a means of working a third (or fourth) color into an outfit. They are small and fairly hidden in your chest pocket and can be rotated in various ways to emphasize particular colors they contain to complement whatever else you are wearing. However, a polka dot pocket square is different than a pocket square that contains more randomized patterns like paisleys or one printed with an image of unicorns and hunting dogs. Because it contains a strong, repeating pattern, it works best either with a solid tie or one that has a similar though sufficiently different pattern. Of course, you never want to wear a pocket square that matches your tie exactly. In the image below, for instance, Sven Raphael Schneider wears a Fort Belvedere wool challis polka dot pocket square with a solid knitted silk tie. The navy foundation adds an additional tone, the light blue spots mirror the color of the tie and the knitted texture resembles the repetition of the dot pattern.
3. Scarves with Polka Dots
With a scarf, similar consideration is required, especially because the polka dots on a scarf will likely be the largest use of the pattern you can find in classic menswear. As such, it can form a strong accent, which again requires that the rest of what you’re wearing doesn’t conflict. Tucked around your face, it will certainly draw attention, so treat it as the main focal point of your outfit if you wear it. As with other accessories, the smaller the spots, the less showy the scarf. Navy blue with white dots, followed by burgundy with white dots, are classic choices.
4. Spotted Socks
Bright socks or those with aggressive patterns on them are often touted as a way to inject individuality into what you’re wearing. The question to ask first is whether you prefer having people look at your ankles rather than your face. At the Gentleman’s Gazette, we don’t think showy socks are the best choice; better to wear socks with a subtle yet original pattern like a shadow stripe, which lets you project personality in a more elegant way.
At this point, perhaps you’re seeing spots before your eyes, but I hope you are also seeing polka dot patterns in a new light. Most people know that polka dots feature in menswear, but we don’t often think about all the possibilities of using them. Polka dots have a unique ability to straddle a range of occasions from highly formal to playful and casual, and as such, they are a must-have in every man’s wardrobe.