Remembering Lilly Pulitzer, Florida's original fashionista
Living in Florida, we take for granted our flowy dresses and bright prints. But there was,perhaps, someone to thank for that: Lilly Pulitzer, whose tropical frocks became famous in the 1960s, and whose designs are a favorite of vintage collectors today. Pulitzer, 81, died on Sunday.
Our colleague Katherine Snow Smith, who covers the business scene in St. Petersburg, shares her thoughts on Lilly below.
It’s ironic that the Iron Lady and the Queen of Prep died a day apart. Both were fiercely independent and known for saying what they thought and sticking to it.
Margaret Thatcher lead Britain wearing dark suits and a frequent pearl broach while Lilly Pulitzer lead a multimillion business donned in bright in shifts depicting peacocks and alligators.
Thatcher, of course, had the harder job, but Pulitzer got the better uniform.
The hot pink and lime green shifts were born because Pulitzer needed something cool and multicolored that would camouflage fruit stains. With perhaps too much time and money on her hands, in the 1959 she started a little juice stand on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach near her wealthy media magnate husband’s citrus groves.
She commissioned someone to make a few dresses out of brightly colored fabric. They were lined and were even “undies optional,” in Florida’s high temps, she noted in a 2003 Vanity Fair article. The shifts started out at $22 but the price rose with demand and status (Jackie Kennedy wore on for a Life magazine photo shoot) and the dress simply known as a “Lilly” became a symbol of the wealthy at play up and down the East Coast.
Pulitzer sold her the business in 1990 and since then, the fluorescent brand has become widely available via mass merchants such as Dillard’s, Saks and Nordstrom. While still expensive, clearance racks and eBay, have made Lilly more accessible to those of us who are far from first ladies or heiresses but still have a penchant for bright colors, whimsy and nostalgia.
Two summers ago my then 11-year-old daughter and I found slim pickings on the Saks sale rack in New York but a fellow shopper informed us the clearance sale had just started at the official Lilly store on Madison Avenue.
We walked the 30 plus blocks to 79th Street instead of paying cab fare that could have been half the cost of a pair of sale-priced shorts.
The store’s walls were covered with framed Lilly fabrics from over the decades. “If these prints could talk,” was scribbled in hot pink cursive beneath them. I shot a picture of it and showed my humorous husband later.
“They’d probably be pretty boring. Just a lot of stuffy cocktail party chatter,” he quipped.
Some perhaps, but not any that had been near Lilly Pulitzer herself.
She was a hardworking and flamboyant entrepreneur who took serious fashion and financial risks but didn’t to take herself seriously. The Vanity Fair story made it clear Pulitzer genuinely couldn’t fathom why anyone would be interested in reading a whole article about her.
Another telling detail, though she sold the company she still reserved the right to rule out a pattern she deemed too loud or silly.
“If she says ‘Oh jeez,’ It’s out,” the article stated.
So I can only imagine what she would say to this reporter’s query: What dress will she be buried in?
-Guest Diva Katherine