At Lilly Pulitzer’s recent funeral thousands of her fans in Lilly dresses thronging to her Florida memorial as a tribute to her colorful and romantic life and the enduring business empire she started with a curbside orange-juice stand.
The easy, simple American upper-class style she and Jackie Kennedy, her schoolmate, pioneered in the Sixties has become a democratic, affordable, easy-to-wear form of hot weather casual apparel. It’s especially embraced for playtime in seaside communities on the East Coast, Great Lakes, Deep South and Pacific resorts.
Today the very name Lilly Pulitzer colors our collective imagination about the fun and glamour, effortless chic and civilized barefoot life in such famous American seaside resorts as Palm Beach, Nantucket and the Hamptons. We see pink and green, turquoise and coral, fuchsia and lemon yellow. And we think of sun-splashed social situations with good times had by men, women and children in brightly printed fashions depicting a madcap mix of tropical blooms, crocodiles and whales, seashells and cocktail glasses.
More than fifty years after she launched her label, her side-slit shift dresses, tunic tops, golf skirts, shorts, bikinis and pants are still going strong, invigorated by a whole new generation’s demand for them. And she continues to inspire other designers.
Bold flower prints and vivid hues are a major trend once again this summer. So in a sense, fashion has caught up with Lilly, whose iconic brand has stayed true to her exuberant vision of the sensual pleasures and eased-up elegance of modern life in hot climes. So what started out as a jet-set snob uniform of the 1960s, then became a country-club favorite and in time a widely copied general fashion craze is now considered American classic.
In socio-fashion terms Lilly Pulitzer was quite unique. A somewhat rebellious daughter of immense but quiet New York and Long Island wealth, she dropped out of college after one semester to become a nurse’s aide in the poverty-stricken hinterlands of Appalachia. At twenty, she eloped against her parents’ wishes with a handsome and racy 22-year-old playboy-adventurer who flew his own seaplane. His name was Peter Pulitzer. His grandfather had founded the Pulitzer Prizes.
The couple decided to live year-round in the scorching South Florida heat of the 1950s. Peter was cultivating orange trees in the then still wild inland region near Lake Okeechobee, where not only alligators and venomous snakes but also Florida panthers and even the vegetation of dagger-shaped palmetto and spikelet-tipped sandbur could bite you back if you didn’t watch your step. After giving birth to three children in four years, Lilly was hospitalized with what is now known as a post-partum depression. Heeding her doctor’s advice to keep busy so as not to let the relative isolation of the Florida off-season get to her, she opened an orange juice stand just off the main shopping street of Palm Beach. But because squeezing the fruit splattered all over her clothes, she needed to wear something that didn’t show the stains. Instead of simply putting on an apron, she picked up some inexpensive cotton fabrics in the five-and-dime and asked her seamstress to make her some sleeveless dresses – some short, loose, sack-like and slit up at the hem for easy movement; others, the simplest, figure-skimming A-line shape that wouldn’t stick to the body in the tropical humidity. Pretty, deeply tanned, bending, cutting, juicing and perspiring in her “little nothing dresses”, Lilly with her exotic golden eyes, gold gypsy earrings and long dark hair pulled into a braid looked like a Polynesian princess out of a Gauguin painting. Friends and total strangers wanted to buy the lime-and-grapefruit pink printed garments literally off her back. One of them was Lilly’s schoolmate, First Lady Jackie Kennedy. And so a fashion staple was born.
My book Lilly tells how with almost no experience but down-to-earth diligence Lilly Pulitzer built up a highly successful fashion business, able to supply such major department stores as Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s as well as opening her own boutiques across the U.S., often where a friend needed a job. She did this despite a tumultuous personal life, touched by more than its share of tragedy and scandal. Lilly and Peter were the picture of domestic bliss and part of her brand’s public image, but a rich tropical playground like Palm Beach turned out to be not an ideal place for a troubled union. A devoted, hard-working mother at a time when few mothers worked, Lilly triumphed over betrayals, losses and despair and found new love with a dashing Cuban-American lawyer, her second husband, Enrique Rousseau, who was protective of her and shared her serendipitous zest for life.
The women at her funeral were dressed in their beloved “Lillys” in all the lively colors of the rainbow. The colors matched the upbeat eulogy given by Lilly’s son: “She was not afraid to die because she was never afraid to live.”
Kathryn Livingston’s book, Lilly: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour, and the Birth of a Fashion Legend published by Wiley.
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