JOHN VON SOTHEN travels to Palm Beach to find out how a depressed heiress and bored housewife without any experience, education, and fashion house backing her, not only built a major brand, but managed to transform the way American elites dress and live.
There’s always that moment when you’re in the dentist chair or flying in heavy turbulence or pretzeled on the yoga mat when you try to find – “that happy place”- that pristine and endearing moment where you and everything around you is perfect. For most of us, that happy place has us barefoot somehow, running in our pajamas in the sand or chasing lightening bugs in our nighties. Crowns of sticks and leaves are in our hair. The stars are out, the world is enchanted, because we are king and queen.
For many, Lilly Pulitzer, the designer who helped transform how affluent Americans dressed, changing their uniform from pretentious to casual; the socialite who taught us how to socialize in a classy, but easy going way; the woman who helped usher in the American “Preppy” look which later would lead to brands like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, J.Crew, and The Gap, never left that happy place. Instead she dilated it, over five decades, and in doing so, allowed not only a new generation of wealthy Americans to not take themselves so seriously, but gave the American woman an option, proving you don’t have to be idly rich even if you’re designing for them, and that you can define your apart from your husband, even if that husband was a Pulitzer.
Most of you reading have probably never heard of Lilly Pulitzer, and that’s OK. But I must admit it’s hard telling a story about someone nobody knows. At first you make it seem like your readers are the idiots “Oh my god, you don’t know who Lilly Pulitzer is? Where have you been?” Then you find yourself trying to make parallels to what you hope they’ll understand “Well she’s kind of like Coco Chanel, but more like Martha Stewart, (which is another reference that doesn’t work, so you’re back to square one). Eventually you stop trying to please and just say fuck it, realizing any story, especially one involving an heiress, a dress, bare feet, and America usually does the trick.
Because the story of Lilly Pulitzer IS an American one. It’s one of innovation and reinvention and ultimately one of work, which is funny because if there was anybody who didn’t have to work it was Lilly Pulitzer. Yet without any experience, without a college education, without any major fashion house backing her, Lilly Pulitzer built not only a major brand, but transformed a 30 km swath of sand off the coast of Florida called Palm Beach into a pole of American fashion.
Lilly Pulitzer created a look sure, but she also created a way of life through a dress she could both work and entertain in, one she could share with friends, and one that millions would end up buying simply as a way to get a taste of what it was like to have a charmed and affluent life such as Lilly’s.
“It’s always summer somewhere.”
And this summer, like the previous fifty before it, those select enough to vacation in bastions of American wealth like Cape Cod, Newport, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, will most likely be wearing some form of a Lilly Pulitzer dress, each easily recognizable, yet each with its own style. Some will be yellow. Some will be pink. Some will be patterned with flowers or fruits or mango trees. Most will be festive, but none will be vulgar. There’s an innocence and charm to a “Lilly” that won’t allow it to be vulgar. Instead the dress evokes Victorian periods in tropical climates, ship wrecked Gauguin paintings scattered along the beach. And yet the form is very simple, so simple it’s a joke actually. Pulitzer herself once called it “a little nothing dress” – slits on the side so it can breathe well, lining made of smooth cotton and not transparent (so you don’t have to wear underwear), form fitting so it can be worn svelte but casually in any setting even when you’re squeezing orange juice. Because that’s what Lilly Pulitzer was doing when she envisioned the dress that made her famous.
But before we get to that moment of genius, let’s go back in time a bit. Because how Lilly Pulitzer found herself squeezing juice barefoot on the side of the road not only explains the very essence of the dress itself, but helps frame why Pulitzer was able to do what so many fashion designers yearn for but rarely achieve: the ability to bridge the gap between casual and dress up, between working class and affluent, between retro and modern in one master stroke.
“Once there were four seasons, but now there’s a fifth. The Palm Beach Season”
Lilly Pulitzer was born rich and married richer. Her mother, Lillian Bostwick Phipps was an heiress to the Rockefeller Oil fortune who’d left her husband Robert McKim in 1937 for the racing enthusiast Ogden Phipps. Phipps’s grandfather, Henry Phipps, had formed US Steel with Andrew Carnegie, then the richest man in the world. The Phippses had a notable horse, art, and furniture collection including a rare collection of Monets and Sergeants and each of their fifteen homes were designed by Vincent Fourcade, the renown ex-pat French interior designer whose firm Fourcade and Denning for forty years in the States “catered to an international clientele who “had the taste of a Rothschild.”
Like many fabulously rich American families, Lilly’s, didn’t “vacation.” Instead they lived “seasonally” in several different areas. Summers were spent in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State or Long Island one hour from New York City where Ogden Phipps raised horses and played polo. Their apartment on 5th avenue in New York served for the fall, and in the winter and spring, Palm Beach, Florida was home.
Palm Beach had become a wealthy destination for affluent American families starting in the early 1900’s. Located north of Miami, Palm Beach, geographically, isn’t much – a skinny sliver of sand hugging the coast of Florida bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and a large lagoon called Lake Worth. Legend has it Palm Beach got its name from the 14,000 Palm trees that grew as a result of a party. When a ship carrying coconuts from the Caribbean washed ashore in a terrible storm, its crew rewarded the local inhabitants who saved them with it cargo of alcohol and coconuts, which were then buried in the stand during a week-long party between rescuers and rescued. Ten years later, an abundance of Palm Trees on an otherwise desolate and often flooded sand bar gave the place an ethereal almost savage charm, one with a penchant for drinking and partying and now for the first time, shade. The American oil tycoon, Henry Flagler (Lilly’s great grandfather’s partner) saw potential and constructed the famous Breakers hotel, a beachfront palace, which, for its time, was considered one of the most luxurious hotels on the East Coast. Nowadays Palm Beach is a place of palatial mansions and gated compounds, but at the turn of the century, it was more isolated tropical destination somewhat like St. Barths in the 1970’s.
And if you were wealthy enough to call Palm Beach your winter home, chances are you’d leave New York after Thanksgiving in November and wouldn’t return until Easter. You’d pull your kids out of school and travel with tutors to make sure they kept up with their studies. You’d travel down to Florida by train in private cars, and you’d bring everything with you including furniture, pets (one family brought their tigers) and staff. Costs were never factored in. It’s been said that one family, upon departure from Palm Beach, paid for an orchestra to play in their honor seven days straight in their empty house. As early as World War I, French brands like Lanvin and Paquin and Worth had identified the area as a then East Coast Dubai and were designing “cruise and vacation wear” for Palm Beach clientele. As one resident said in the 1920’s, “Not to have the right clothes at Palm Beach was a tragedy.”
But because Palm Beach was considered too hot in the summer, most would then migrate back north, often to Newport, a port enclave along the East Coast, just north of New York, where families like the Vanderbilts, Astors, and DuPonts had constructed French style châteaux they called « cottages » perched upon cliffs, featuring dining rooms and ball rooms but few bedrooms, since guests were expected to have “cottages” of their own. Many of the homes were designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the 19th century American architect who had also designed the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The social scene at Newport, was very wealthy very belle époque, probably best captured in Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer prize for literature in 1921. If it wasn’t Newport, then Palm Beachers would travel abroad to the South of France like the wealthy protagonists Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.
“That migration still continues,” said Vernon Holleman IV, a close friend from Washington, DC, who recently attended a party in the Hamptons with his children. “At one point, a child about the same age as my kids approached us and asked with a straight-face, “Where do you live in the winter?”
« Being well dressed is a wonderful form of politeness.”
Once she began high school though, Lilly had to renounce winters in Palm Beach, because at Miss Porter’s school in Farmington, Connecticut, living seasonally wasn’t tolerated. Miss Porter’s was a rigorous all girl’s boarding school formed in the mid 19th century American Puritan sense by Sarah Porter, an education reformist who insisted a girl’s education include not just Latin and literature and poetry, but politics, chemistry, biology, and baseball.
Miss Porter’s catered to the girls of America’s wealthiest families, and as Evgenia Peretz, who wrote a Vanity Fair article on the school in 2009 described, “Miss Porter’s was no ordinary school. It’s where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis went, in addition to many other famous debutantes and beauties, such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Lilly Pulitzer, Brenda Frazier, Barbara Hutton, Edith Beale (the “Little Edie” of Grey Gardens), and actress Gene Tierney, as well as numerous young ladies with the last names Rockefeller, Auchincloss, Biddle, Bush, Forbes, and Van Rensselaer, not to mention heiresses to the fortunes generated by a supermarket-aisle full of iconic American products, including one brand of breakfast cereal (Kellogg’s), three meats (the Raths of Iowa and the Swifts and Armours of Chicago), and the world’s most famous dough (Pillsbury). The girls would usually come from places like New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and outside Philadelphia, and they were often called by such nicknames as Bunky, Flossie, Hiho, A-Bee, B-Zee, Wheezie, Tug, and Poo. » Lilly had two sisters: Memsie and Flossie.
At Miss Porter’s, discipline, initiative, and toughness were emphasized. The women leaving Miss Porter’s were expected to attract a husband from Yale or Harvard or another exclusive Ivy League school of course, but not as a trophy wife, more as an educated and worldly woman with opinions and beliefs apart from her husband’s. Miss Porter’s was the equivalent, if not more exclusive, than the private schools in Manhattan, differing only in that the girls slept in sparse conditions and were helped to a rigorous regimen of teamwork, which would eventually allow them to forge strong life long bonds with fellow classmates.
It was there at Miss Porter’s that Lilly would discover not only the inner drive she’d harness to form her own brand later on, but the WASP esthetic of dress, which would eventually dictate her own tastes.
As former Vogue editor Polly Mellen, who also attended Miss Porters from 1938 to 1942 recalled in an old issue of Vanity Fair, “If you were at Miss Porter’s you wore the Brooks Brothers polo coat, and you wore black-and-white saddle shoes and the Brooks Brothers Shetland sweater in all those different wonderful colors, over a little perfect white shirt, and a gray flannel skirt.” What Mellen was describing was the early precursor to the Preppy look (the word being derived from the adjective “Prepatory,” which applied to schools like Miss Porters) and which Lilly would eventually help bring mainstream, leading to the billion dollar industry we now see today.
“I didn’t set out to be unusual or different. I just wanted to do things my way.”
However following her graduation from Miss Porter’s, instead of heading off to Vassar, the prestigious woman’s university her parents expected to her to attend, Lilly joined the Frontier Nursing service, an organization delivering medicine to rural parts of Kentucky on horseback. Although she claimed she was dyslexic and was “an awful student anyway,” Lilly seemed intent on avoiding the debutant balls and social events her friends were attending by taking on a hardy challenge.
Soon after her service, and much to the shock of her family, Lilly eloped with Peter Pulitzer, a handsome bachelor she’d met in Palm Beach earlier one winter. Although very rich and from a prestigious family himself (Peter’s father was the media magnate Joseph Pulitzer and whose founding prize in literature, the Pulitzer prize, serves still today as the gold standard of Literature honors) Pulitzer was different than the men Lilly’s friends were meeting. He had tattoos, he too hadn’t gone to university, and he had a private plane, which he used to visit his orange and grapefruit orchards in the North of Florida. Before meeting Lilly, Peter had dated her classmate, Jackie Bouvier (Kennedy) as well as actress Grace Kelly, both of whom had vacationed in Palm Beach. Life magazine once wrote: “Peter Pulitzer is a new breed of playboy with the signature difference, work is his play. He and his young wife live well, but quietly.”
What made the Pulitzer couple in Palm Beach immediately different wasn’t that they were young or rich or had affluent last names, but that they stayed in Palm Beach all year round, and because of that, they didn’t feel obliged to socialize at the country clubs or local balls or fund raisers like the migrant New Yorkers did. Instead they knew the local fisherman, had parties on the beach in front of their house, cultivating a “civilized barefoot lifestyle” Lilly Pulitzer would exploit later on.
« We love parties that start at the piano and end at the pool. »
As the writer Kathlyn Livingston described in her book Lilly: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour, and the Birth of a Fashion legend, “The Pulitzers didn’t want servants. Lilly and her husband threw casual dinner parties in their big bright kitchen that could seat more than thirty people. They didn’t try to impress guests, but instead put them to work, chopping and stirring. After dinner, they used the empty champagne bottles to slosh water on the tile floor, making it slippery for dancing. Sometimes these dinners went on until four in the morning.”
The Pulitzer Palm Beach beach parties were stuff of legend. The actor Errol Flynn would often attend along with his friend Ernest Hemingway, both close friends of Peter Pulitzer. And since they were always in their garden or by the pool, the door was never locked. Guests were expected to let themselves in and make themselves at home. One Palm Beach resident remembered in 1961 seeing the couple on their boat near the Palm Beach marina. “One of the first things I saw in Palm Beach was the Pulitzers and a few friends having a quiet drink in the stern of their yacht. It was tied up at the dock and I was crossing the Royal Palm Bridge and the evening sun was coming across Lake Worth and I thought, “Those are the most attractive people I have ever seen.” The Pulitzers gave off a Gatsby-esque, effortless yet glamorous life. “I was a gypsy, living a carefree life of Ponies and tennis,” admitted Lilly.
But the parties, and the heat, and having three children in five years eventually forced Lilly to leave Palm Beach to be treated in New York for depression. “I was a namby-pamby; people always had made decisions for me. »” Pulitzer admitted to People Magazine in 1982. “I eventually went crazy.”
Ironically, the regimented life of the clinic pleased Lilly and the advice of her doctor to “keep busy” stuck with her long after she’d returned to Palm Beach. “He told me there is nothing wrong with you; you just need something to do. You’re not happy because you’re not doing anything. I followed the doctor’s advice and came out of the hospital a lot stronger, and I haven’t stopped since,” Lilly said years later in an interview with Lorna Koski for W Magazine.
The interesting wrinkle here is that Lilly’s idea to design was born from a crippling mental crisis. Driven by a determination to not just become idly rich, Lilly Pulitzer would create the look of the idle rich.
“Not always sunny, but always in a sunny state of mind”
Armed with this new mental outlook and a determination to not fail (“the stakes were too high”, said Lilly) Lilly took advantage of what was at her disposal (her husband’s orange groves) and began selling his freshly picked oranges wholesale to the only people she knew, her rich neighbors. And although most were perplexed by the site of Lilly coming through the back door early in the morning like staff, Lilly wasn’t ashamed. The business was an immediate success and would eventually lead her to open a juice stand on Via Mizner right off the most affluent street of Palm Beach, Worth Avenue.
At first glance, if you crossed Lilly Pulitzer, an heiress to an enormous fortune and wife to one of the richest families on earth, standing barefoot on the side of the road squeezing orange juice, you might feel pity. But the energy and humor Lilly elicited quickly dissipated any awkwardness customers originally felt. Lilly was busy, the drinks were good, she felt healthy, and she was making money. If anything, it was the juice that was the problem.
« At the end of the day I was covered in pulp and dribbles of orange juice. I had to do something,” Lilly explained in her book Essentially Lilly, “I used to have this wonderful Swiss lady make shifts for me. I found this bright, bright fabric, the same colors as the fruit, so that the splashes and mess wouldn’t show. People would say, ‘Oh, they’re great. So I went down to Woolworth’s, got some fabric and had twelve dresses made for me, and I had just hung them haphazardly. This was the early sixties. The Kennedy’s were down here; Jack had just been elected President. The eyes of the whole world were on Palm Beach. Jackie wore one of my dresses – it was made from kitchen curtain material – and people went crazy. They took off like zingo. Everybody loved them, and I went into the dress business.”
“Jackie wore one of my dresses – it was made from kitchen curtain material – and people went crazy.”
In 1959 Pulitzer became president of Lilly Pulitzer, Inc, and before long, Palm Beach was full of “Lillys.” The young woman who never really cared about clothes had, to her surprise, embarked on a career as a designer, eventually harnessing innate business skills, ingenuity, and discipline she never knew she had.
“At the time, I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy … fruits, vegetables, politics or peacocks,” Ms. Pulitzer told The Associated Press in 2009. “It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy, so I was happy.”
Pulitzer had unwittingly seized on a classic Harvard business school model: Create a niche then corner the market on that niche. Soon, anybody who considered themselves somebody in Palm Beach didn’t just have one Lilly dress, but several, each for one of their respective residences up north, and when Jackie Kennedy wore her Lilly while vacationing in Ravello and on Cape Cod in the summer of 1962, Pulitzer’s simple “work dress” became the relaxed uniform of the American-affluent. What Jackie Kennedy saw, at least from a political standpoint, was that Pulitzer had indirectly caught the zeitgeist of the time. The dress was simple yet chic, and the Kennedys, conscious they represented a change of iconography in the American political landscape, saw its potential. Jackie (who’d met John Kennedy while she was a working reporter for The Washington Times-Herald) gravitated towards the idea of a work dress. And even though she was a first lady now, Kennedy believed she too could relive her own barefoot moment in Ravello. The political message of youth and simplicity deftly embraced the dichotomy of working class and affluence, while at the same time guarding the cardinal tenants of affluence, aristocracy, and power.
The Kennedys who normally vacationed in the summer retreat of Cape Cod off of Massachusetts were well versed in knowing the importance of summer attire. Cape Cod had always been heralded as the Anti-Newport, a place just as wealthy, but more reserved, a place New Yorkers often vacation to be with Bostonians. There’s a dominating protestant attitude on the Cape, one of never wanting to flaunt your wealth; one of low-key charm, often captured by writers like Norman Mailer and Henry David Thoreau, whicker rocking chairs, and wool pipe stained cardigan sweaters. The notion of dressing up is frowned upon, almost considered ridiculous, and Jackie, now a Kennedy, was very conscious of this. For her, the Lilly fit perfectly with her husband’s dress downed penchant for khakis, Perry topsiders and games of football on the beach. Together both came off as fit and irreverent, which for a Miss Porters girl, meant you had inner strength and confidence, so much so, you didn’t care if others found it strange you were wearing a shower curtain as a dress. The dress was funny but classy, and as Livingston pointed out in Cecil Staughton’s famous photo of the Kennedy family on the back porch in Cape Cod that summer, « The image was as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July, but it also gave the country a glimpse of leisure at its civilized, upper-crust best. »
“Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s about how you live.”
Following the summer of 1962, Lilly deftly handled the fast expansion by treating her success with the same Pulitzer wit. “At the time, all I could think was “Have I started some weird cult?”
But, as often the case with people from such wealth, Lilly hated promoting herself. John Davis Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, once said, “One should only be in the press three times. Once for birth, once for marriage, and once for death.” Yet at the same time, Lilly realized the best way to grow the brand was to document her own life, which many saw as rare and exquisite. She avoided the seasonal fashion shows up north, choosing to stay close to Palm Beach and work with photographers like Slim Aarons who used Lilly both for inspiration and access to those around her, many of whom were often at Lilly’s wearing Lillys. There was C.Z. Guest, the Boston socialite who was one of Truman Capote’s “swans” or the Vanderbilt, Whitney, and Rockefeller mothers and daughters happy to pose in their respective dresses. The ensuing shots took on a realistic almost Terry Richardson vibe, adding more to the dress’s allure in hot climates. Magazines like Town and Country, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Vogue quickly grasped the phenomenon and competed against each other to shoot Lilly modeling her own Lilly doing Lilly things.
Ilene Rosenthal, Chief Marketing Partner at the White Space Marketing Group sites this an example of Lilly being the first Mark Zuckenberg. « Lilly Pulitzer embodied the foundation for social networking today, without the benefit of digital technology, but powered by money and position. Entrenched today in Pinterest and Tumbler along with the LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (@LillyPulitzer), Lilly maintains the feel of a close knit club to which we all secretly want to belong. »
Not only was Lilly different than most designers or houses in her marketing, the dress itself announced a tectonic shift in the values of the American rich. Gone were clubs, chauffeurs, jewelry, palatial mansions, and idle time. In were dogs, grandkids, bare feet, dinner parties, work and dancing. Lilly Pulitzer did not change the times, but her dress reflected them.
“My mother’s endearing quality was that she didn’t care what people thought of her,” said her daughter Liza Pulitzer Leidy. “She collected people from all walks of life, never locked her door, and was always totally approachable. There was no formality.”
“It’s always summer somewhere.”
Throughout the 1960’s, the dress grew, thanks to the seamless way it managed to fit into the local culture of normally disparate vacations spots. For example, Lilly dresses in the New England culture of Kinnebunkport, Maine (home to the Bushes) were as much in vogue as Lilly dresses in laid back West Coast Malibu, California. And in both places, the dress represented a right to belong in the exclusive surroundings. Combined with its habit of being worn by celebrities and famous socialites, the dress offered to an average buyer not just the ability to travel to these places where the “in crowd was,” but the feeling of actually being part of the “in-crowd.
In designing the dress it’s as if Lilly had a sixth sense of how to tap into the tribal quality of American upper class culture. In 1966, The Washington Post reported that the dresses were “so popular that at the Southampton Lilly shop they are proudly put in clear plastic bags upon purchase, tied gaily with ribbons so that all the world may see the Lilly of your choice. It’s like carrying your own racing colors or flying a yacht flag for identification.”
“The Lilly girl is always full of surprises…she never has a dull moment, and makes every hour a happy hour.”
What really made the look so original was that it wasn’t a designer projecting what he or she thought wealth was. It was wealthy American establishment creating for the wealthy American establishment. Lilly was so much part of the inner circle; she was never trying to dress up for it. Au contraire she was dressing down for it. This isn’t to say Lilly didn’t deny the wealth and power of Palm Beach or Cape Cod or her milieu. It simply meant Lilly was deftly managing to rebel against it in her own way.
Jay Steinhardt of Steinhardt Textiles fondly remembered the way Pulitzer conducted business.. “My company represented Crisali Fabrics based in Los Angeles and we sold fabrics to Lilly in the mid-1960s. At my business meetings with Lilly she was always barefoot.”
The late American social critic Cleveland Armory, who too was born into wealth, once remarked “ it’s usually the fourth generation that begins to rebel against its money.” One could say both Lilly and her husband were somehow channeling their long deceased forbearers (the ones who’d founded the immense fortunes) by being industrious and trying to start from nothing to make something unique. The similarity of Lilly barefoot at the juice stand and her great-grandfather in law, Joseph Pulitzer, who slept on a St. Louis park bench as a newly arrived Hungarian immigrant, were coincidental sure and each were under different conditions certainly. But it’s hard to deny the comparison.
“Anything is possible with sunshine and a little pink.”
The Lilly brand was also aided in large part by the colorful trippy palates of clothing that were trending at that time, not only in the US, but Europe as well.
“The 60s was an era of a new wave of fashion especially in London. Designers such as Mary Quant, Paco Rabanne and Emilio Pucci were all the rage. People were dressing in psychedelic prints, highlighted colors, and mismatched patterns.” said Jasonpaul McCarthy, Director of BFA Fashion Design Program at Parsons Paris. “Experimenting, having fun, being expressive and carefree was the lifestyle. I think this era helped the movement and desire for Lilly dresses.”
By the late 1970’s, the brand boasted sales of over 250 million and had become a major player in American leisure wear. There wasn’t a country clubs, private school, or East coast church picnic that didn’t have some sort of Lilly Pulitzer presence, leading many in the press to label her the “Queen of Prep.”
The 1980’s were less kind. All of a sudden minimalism and black were in, and this, combined with poorly timed expansions and fiercer competition for the Prep look, lead the company to claim bankruptcy protection in 1984.
The label was later revived in the 1990s by two Harvard MBAs, James Bradbeer and Scott Beaumont, men whose mothers had worn Lilly Pulitzer. Both had noticed how much Lilly dresses had been selling on eBay and realized the brand still had potential. There was a nostalgic element the two investors wanted to tap into, not to mention the demographic one. “75% of the American population lives with 90 minutes of the beach,” said Bradbeer, “and 85% of Americans go to the beach for vacation.” Lilly was kept on as a consultant and the firm grossed over 100 million in 2008, eventually being acquired in 2010 by Oxford Industries in a deal valued at $80 million.
Whereas brands like Laura Ashley and Halston have struggled in their comebacks, Lilly Pulitzer succeeded, due in large part to the retro feel of the brand plus a new generation of buyer, who felt the strong identity Lilly had embedded. The closest comparison could be Coco Channel, (OK fine I did it) who too had closed down her brand only to reopen it in 1954. And like Channel, Lilly can be credited with starting a movement in woman’s fashion.
« Lilly definitely started a movement, » says Bridgette Moore a senior associate at Lilly Pulitzer. « She is known for owning the Shift Dress, which she began back in 1960’s and still today the Shift Dress is our most important style. It has stayed our best seller throughout time. Just like DVF (Diane von Fürstenberg) has the Wrap Dress, Lilly has the Shift Dress. »
“Lilly’s identity was so strong and engrained that it was instantly recognizable compared with the others,” said Jasonpaul Mccarthy. “The popularity of the style was re-emerging at that time and a new breed of audience of a younger age demographic and socioeconomic status had been established.”
By the end, Lilly, who was almost as well-known for her entertaining as she was for her fashion had remarried (this time to Enrique Rousseau, a Cuban aristocrat) and embarked on a career as a writer, crafting a series of lifestyle books with co-author Jay Mulvaney promoting a casual sort of elegance she called “affluence at ease.” The titles ranged from Essentially Lilly: A guide to Colorful Entertaining to Essentially Lilly: A guide to Colorful Holidays, each chock full of tips, recipes, eccentric ideas for parties, and quotes. Quotes about keeping a positive outlook, (“Despite the forecast, live like it’s spring”), quotes about how to party (« I love parties that start at the piano and end at the pool. ») quotes about giving back (“If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.”) , leading the site ecards to publish a famous ecard saying Lilly Pulitzer: It’s like Preppy Prozac. Whether Lilly actually said all these things doesn’t matter. She’s now on equal footing with Groucho Marx and Jesus in terms of classic sayings that are illustrated on calendars, embroidered on pillows, and pinned on Pinterest.
My favorite comes from Steven Stolman, a former employee at Lilly Pulitzer, who recalled Lilly’s disappointment when he was unable to obtain a specific print she wanted for the exhibit because the cost of obtaining it on the vintage market was outside his budget.
“A budget,” she told him, “how embarrassing.”
With the 80’s came the explosion of brands like Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, The Gap, and the prep culture that came with it. One of the best selling books of the decade The Official Preppy Handbook, which satirized what it took to be a preppy person in the 1980s, owes much of its sense of humor to Pulitzer, who’s tongue and cheek approach to fashion set the book’s tone of parodying the lifestyle of the WASP elite; the same sort of tone and texture one may find today in a Wes Anderson film.
« Lilly Pulitzer was a kind of a black sheep phenomenon within the preppy fold: the debutante turned eccentric go-getter,” Lisa Birnbach, the Handbook’s author told me. “She was a fabulous woman, but I had never really studied up on Lilly Pulitzer until I spent time with her after the publication of (my new book) True Prep in 2010. I’ve been inspired by so many of this type, though. They were spirited and courageous. I could spend hours reading their always-surprising obituaries. »
A large part of the current Lilly Pulitzer catalog involves accessories like agendas, cocktail tumblers, and cellphone cases; not to mention college sorority co-branding sweatshirts; each approved with its own trademark Pulitzer color scheme. The only non-colorful object it seems is a tote bag with a black and white photo of Lilly taken at the genesis of her career, running from her husband’s propeller plane arms full of fabric for her dresses.
Glances at the summer 2014 Zara catalog not to mention the Polo Cruise 2014 Collection for Men by Ralph Lauren show an uncanny Pulitzer resemblance. You can see the Lilly effect in ads for Jeep Cherokees or Vilebrequin swimsuits, in shows like Desperate Housewives or Sex and the City, to Tom Cruise celebrity red carpet walks with daughter Suri Cruise to actresses Brooke Shields and Gwyneth Paltrow customizing their own Lilly dresses, each in a limited edition. “My first memory of wearing Lilly Pulitzer goes back to when I was three years old in Southampton, » actress Brooke Shields told Vogue. « Lilly bathing suits were part of my summer uniform, and I’ve been a fan ever since.”
One of the enduring traits of the Lilly Pulitzer brand has been its ability to hand itself down, like a prized recipe, from generation to generation. Kick and Kyra Kennedy, the granddaughters of Robert Kennedy, have become spokespeople for the brand, taking a cue from their matriarch great grandmother Rose Kennedy and her then daughter Kathleen Kennedy, both of whom wore Lilly. Even Amanda Hearst, (the descendent of Joseph Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst) has marketed the brand along with her friend Lauren Bush, the niece of former President George W. Bush and granddaughter of former President George H.W. Bush, proving once again the coziness of patrician families continues through Lilly.
Lori Durante, the Executive Director of the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in Delray Beach, Florida, who’s currently planning an exhibit on Pulitzer in 2015 credits the Lilly dress with possessing an almost Proustian quality – one that’s not only identifiable across the room in the present, but in the past as well, deep within our memories.
“That’s what life is all about: Let’s have a party. Let’s have it tonight.”
“Lilly has a strong following of fans (“Lilly-lovers” as some people call them) who connect Lilly with a momentous experience in their life like a wedding, baptism, anniversary, vacation, or family gathering. It’s the only brand I’m aware of where people start their sentence by saying “I remember I was wearing Lilly,” or “I’ll never forget that day because we all had on Lilly.”
Bobby Leidy, one of Lilly’s grandsons has his own Lilly memories growing up with his “Granny” in Palm Beach. “Granny had bought a large parcel of land all the way to the ocean that had a giant jungle in it, which she left untouched, except for a tiny guesthouse she built for her grandchildren. In the jungle she put trampolines and a statue of liberty hidden in the trees, and she had wild cats running around, and it was a paradise for us. She’d often have guests over, often Enrique’s Cuban friends, and we’d jump in the pool and splash them and their cigars. There were always animals, and people, and something to eat. Even my friends called her “Granny.”
The memories I have of my mother often have her wearing some kind of Lilly. She was a true WASP as well, born the same year Lilly was and attended Vassar just like Jackie had and where Lilly would have gone had she not left for Kentucky. And each time my daughter wears the Lilly mom gave her, I can’t help but go back to those summertime cocktails she’d have with her girlfriends, all with names like Babs and Barney, Jean, and Rosie – each in their own Lilly, each with gin and tonics in their hand and funny straw hats, each allowing themselves a moment which Lilly had opened a door to and which now could never be closed. Even my late father’s best friend, Mac McGarry, a radio and television personality in Washington, routinely wore Lilly Pulitzer golf pants to the football games he’d take me too. And when I’d repeatedly ask him why in the hell was he wearing strange pink crocodile pants and wasn’t he embarrassed, “Uncle Mac” would respond in the same clever smile “Because they’re bright and cheerful, and everyone notices them…..and then me!”
“I believe elegance can be casual. I believe gracefulness can be compatible with fits of laughter. I believe in living a colorful life.”
Lilly Pulitzer passed away in 2013 at the age of 82, but not with the typical story arc most designers you assume do: ruined and or alone, bitter at their competitors, feeling unappreciated by their era, or worried about their legacy. Instead Lilly was in Palm Beach, surrounded by grandchildren and dogs and friends and cats and birds, near her jungle garden and of course barefoot. Even at her memorial service at the Palm Beach Episcopal Church of Bethesda-By-The-Sea, there was little black worn by the attendees, more an assortment of pink and yellow dresses, flowered ties and orchid patterned bags – a celebration of a life instead of a mourning of a death – which Lilly I’m sure would have approved.
Although many designers appear to have exceptional lives, deep down few of us really want those lives. I don’t want John Galliano’s life, nor would have I wanted Yves Saint Laurent’s, but Lilly Pulitzer’s… maybe.
Former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once said “The energy of imagination, deliberation, and invention, which fall into a natural rhythm totally one’s own, maintained by innate discipline and a keen sense of pleasure. These are the ingredients of style.”
Lilly Pulitzer had style, and yet she never dreamed of being a designer. “Mom had no experience with illustration, no seamstress talent. Often she thought she’d just lucked out actually.” One could say Lilly’s life’s calling was more to create art out of the charmed life she was living, and as Livingston wrote “bring artistic form to her creative self.”
“I didn’t set out to be unusual or different,” said Pulitzer, “I just wanted to do things my way,”
Lilly Pulitzer was different though; and unusual for someone who’d been born into such affluence. She lived well. She went to the finest schools. She frequented the highest of the high in terms of American society, but never once did she let it consume her, nor define her, nor limit her. Instead she somehow found humor in it all and turned that laugh into something she could share – “that happy place” – somewhere barefoot, wearing a funny flower dress she made for herself, a dress fit for a Queen.
French version – click below