Connecting the Dots

How to Wear Playful Polka Dots This Season

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There’s something about polka dots that women love. The sweet, feminine pattern has never truly gone out of style.

For fall 2011, polka-dot prints will be everywhere. “They’re saying polka dots are the stripes of last year,” said Heather Snow, a Los Angeles-based stylist. She loves the trend, as it gives American women a chic French aesthetic. “It’s a continuation of that constant, evolving Parisian look that just keeps coming our way.”

While polka dots might be a designer favorite this season, the boldness of the print can sometimes be intimidating. But if you know how to wear them, polka dots are a fun pattern to explore.

“Polka dots exude happiness. There’s something about a polka-dot print that makes people smile,” said Ruth Sonnenshein, stylist, wardrobe consultant and co-founder of the personal styling company A Clothes Call.

There’s something about a polka-dot print that makes people smile.

Ruth Sonnenshein, co-founder of personal styling company A Clothes Call

Dot Decibel

This year, polka dots will come in a wide range of sizes. The classic, more conservative print is tiny pin-drop dots, while the bolder, more modern polka-dot print is larger, golf-ball-sized circles. “The pin-drop dots give off a vintage, soft, feminine feel, while the bigger dots are more current, edgier and sleek,” Sonnenshein said.

If your vibe is more the former, there are many ways to play with the tiny-dot print. A tailored dress with a ’60s “Mad Men” silhouette is a perfect transitional item for the fall, advised Sonnenshein. “You can wear the dress with rubber flip-flops and tie your hair in a bun for the weekend. And then you can throw on a shrunken blazer and a pair of pumps and wear it to the office on Monday.”

The tinier dots also look chic in a chiffon button-down blouse that ties in a bow at the top -- another garment that screams retro ’60s secretary.

The larger polka dots, on the other hand, make more of a statement, and you can amp up the mod look by wearing the pattern nontraditionally. Snow loves a polka-dot jacket for the fall. Stella McCartney showcased a sheer polka-dot dress, covered up with a blazer, on the runway. Big polka-dot leggings are another fun, casual piece to match with an oversized chambray shirt or chunky sweater.

Pop It With Color

Polka dots are most commonly seen in neutral colors: black and white, gray and white, or navy and white. But for fall 2011, bright colors are all the rage. So if you have a neutral polka-dot garment, match the piece with vibrant colors.

Snow suggests wearing a polka-dot dress with a pair of bright red or orange pumps. If you pick up a polka-dot blouse, throw on a pair of colored jeans, which are ever so on-trend, too.

If you do find a more colorful polka-dot print, don’t be afraid to match it with another bright hue. Because of the whimsical, almost childlike nature of the print, there is more freedom to make it pop with unusual color combinations.

Carmen Electra shows off a polka-dot dress with a red belt.
Carmen Electra shows off a polka-dot dress with a red belt.

Pattern Play

Polka dot isn’t the only pattern in the game. Florals, stripes and plaids are among the many patterns making appearances in the 2011 look books. But you don’t have to sacrifice one pattern to wear another this fall. Mixing and matching patterns is not only OK; it’s encouraged this season.

Sonnenshein suggests wearing a polka-dot blouse under a pinstripe suit or skirt to the office. Or match it with a high-waisted tweed skirt. You could also try pairing a polka-dot blazer with a floral dress and oxfords. A striped shirt with a polka-dot skirt is another fun option, says Snow.

Similar to the bright colors trend, there’s no wrong way to mix and match patterns this fall. And buying one polka-dot piece to combine with patterned garments you already own is an excellent way to give your last-season pieces a 2011 boost.

Kelly Osborne mixes and matches patterns in Los Angeles, March 2011.
Kelly Osborne mixes and matches patterns in Los Angeles, March 2011.

Cautionary Measures

While the polka-dot rage is a lot about creative experimentation, there are some things to note when working with such a bold pattern.

If you are fuller figured, Sonnenshein advises that the safest bet, as with many busy patterns, is polka dots above the waist. “Match a polka-dot top with a solid bottom, and it brings the eye up,” Sonnenshein said. If you do want to rock a polka-dot dress, however, the smaller dots tend to be more flattering on a fuller figure than the golf-ball-sized dots.

To avoid looking clownish, make sure that your polka-dot garments are tailored or have some structure. T-shirts are an obvious exception, but a polka-dot muumuu or baggy jumpsuit may run the risk of getting too close to that Ringling Brothers aesthetic. Also, stick to one polka-dot piece in your outfit. The only girl who has ever been able to get away with a polka-dot bow and dress together is Minnie Mouse.

Aside from those simple guidelines, the polka-dot trend seems to be a reflection of the fashion industry’s more playful and creative personality in 2011. So explore the dots, try out some fresh combinations and look like the Parisian mademoiselle you know you are.

A model shows head-to-knee polka dots in Sydney, Australia.
A model shows head-to-knee polka dots in Sydney, Australia.

Polka-Dotted Accents

A polka-dot headscarf goes nicely with a striped top.
A polka-dot headscarf goes nicely with a striped top.

If you prefer a more muted wardrobe, a fun yet affordable way to explore the polka-dot trend is through accessories.

“A polka-dot scarf is a great way to add that 3-D effect to a wardrobe on a budget and stay current,” said Ruth Sonnenshein, stylist, wardrobe consultant and co-founder of A Clothes Call. The “3-D effect,” Sonnenshein explains, is adding a third trend to a look, which can really make it stand out from the rest. A scarf is a great piece to snag because it can be a year-round accessory.

Purses are coming out in polka-dot patterns, and Sonnenshein suggests picking up either a polka-dot clutch or a big casual tote. Polka-dot pumps are also showing up on racks for fall 2011, yet another way to add that 3-D effect.

Since this trend is all about having fun, accessories are a good way to play with the trend without breaking the bank. “It’s hard for everyone to add all these expensive pieces to their wardrobes,” Sonnenshein said. “But you can add a polka-dot scarf for under $10 and you’re totally on-point.”

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