HISTORY OF LILLY PULITZER
Let’s bring it on home to our Florida roots for one of our own, True Fashionista Palm Beach socialite and fashion trendsetter, Lilly Pulitzer. It was around 1959 when Ms. Lilly, the wife of Peter Pulitzer, an owner of numerous citrus groves and member of THAT family, desired a business of her own. At this point, we should fill you in on the backstory.
Growing up rich and privileged, Lilly was 21, still a newlywed (They eloped!), and new mom. Feeling that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she did what any entitled young person would do at the time; she checked herself into a mental health facility. Lilly’s daughter Liza shared with Town & Country that it was more than likely undiagnosed postpartum depression. After months of treatment, the doctor declared that Lilly was just fine and simply needed something to do. "I had never had a responsibility in my life," she said in a 1994 W magazine interview. "I couldn't button my shoes or do my own pigtails...All I had ever had to do was get to my tennis lesson or ride my pony."
Pulitzer looked to her husband’s business and decided that operating a juice stand would be that something. The roadside business on Via Mizner, just off Worth Avenue in Palm Beach (you know you were wondering) was a hit, but squeezing citrus all day was making a mess of her clothing. Lilly decided she needed a uniform, and had her dressmaker design something comfortable and cool to wear that would also camouflage the juice stains; and the True Fashionista colorful, patterned Lilly Pulitzer line was born.
Lilly’s customers quickly became more interested in her dresses than the fresh-squeezed juices. Popularity also helps if you’re pals with Jackie Kennedy, who had been a schoolmate of Pulitzer’s back in the Bouvier days. Jackie can be seen sporting a Lilly Pulitzer ensemble in many a young Kennedy family summer pic. This friendship, as well as others in Pulitzer’s circle of wealthy, connected socialites, was key to her success, especially since at the time, her line was the antitheses of the late 50’s/early 60’s June Cleaver look of corsets, girdles, full slips, and stiletto heels.
In a 1971 interview with the Palm Beach Post, Lilly recalled, "The first Lillys were made from fabrics I'd buy in the dime stores in West Palm Beach. We were a real shock to everyone. People thought the Lilly dress was a fad that would last about two years...We just picked up steam and kept going." After the first Palm Beach socialite was photographed in a polka-dot Lilly Pulitzer shift in 1962, the business “took off like a zingo”, to quote Lilly herself. (Town & Country, 2017)
By the late 60’s, the line had expanded to children’s and teen clothing, as well as menswear. The Duke of Windsor was a fan, claiming in a 1968 column that he owned a pair of Lilly bathing trunks. The line continued well into the 70’s, but hit a wall in 1984 when tastes had shifted so dramatically toward minimalism that the company was forced to file for bankruptcy. It was at this point that Lilly stopped designing.
"Mom was never a businesswoman, but she was incredibly creative," her daughter Liza later told the NY Times. "She never set out to become a recognizable designer. Her whole being was a free spirit. She was happiest when she was designing. The pressures that she felt most were knowing how to run a business."
Revived in 1993 by Sugartown Worldwide then sold to Oxford Industries, the line was overseen by Lilly herself as creative consultant until her passing in 2013. The brand had to adapt to the wants and needs of a new era, which had understandably changed dramatically from the 1960’s.
Designer and author Steven Stolman, who curated the brand’s revival as well as its 50th Anniversary Retrospective, compares the revived looks to the originals, similar to how Karl Lagerfeld updated Coco Chanel, adding that Pulitzer herself was the model of what her line had always represented. “Lilly was not a little lady. She had a big personality, a huge heart, and an appetite for life. She loved good food and she loved a good cocktail."
Thanks to social media and ardent fans, the clothing line and spirit of Lilly Pulitzer will very well live on forever. There are countless Lilly fans and collectors. Fan clubs dot the Instagram and Facebook landscapes with names like Chasing Lilly and Pink Narcissus Daytona. The Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History has its own Facebook page based on the exhibit that ran in its Boynton Beach home in 2019. We also recommend a lovely book about the fashion icon, Lilly: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour and the Birth of a Fashion Legend.
No worries, survivors, there now even exist Lilly Pulitzer face masks, and you’ll be happy to know the company has also been hard at work outfitting our heroes on the front lines with stylish protection.
Head on into True Fashionistas to discover more Lillys, be it a safely sanitized visit to our store, or an online shopping excursion in our constantly updated Lilly Pulitzer collection, and put a smile on your face.