Palm Beach Story: Lilly Pulitzer Is Bizarrely Fascinating

Illustration for article titled Palm Beach Story: Lilly Pulitzer Is Bizarrely Fascinating

"The 77-year-old designer and former grande dame of Palm Beach entertaining—in the Sixties and Seventies, her kitchen sat 26 for dinner—awaits guests perched on a chinoiserie-covered bench. She wears white slacks and a vintage Lilly shirt printed with white and yellow daisies, her feet bare but for the bright coral polish on her toes," describes a new W magazine profile. Everybody knows Lilly Pulitzer prints — the pink and green WASP uniforms that have signified Palm Beach privilege for half a century. Most of us would never wear them — but there's something compelling about this quintessential story of privilege, independence and success. And Lilly Pulitzer herself — brisk, eccentric, sans underpants — is a character for the books!

Lilly Pulitzer herself had a textbook background: Chapin, Miss Porter's, marriage to a publishing scion, and a youthful life of wealthy eccentricity (Pulitzer is famous for going without shoes and undies and for keeping a menagerie as a young wife.) Then came anxiety attacks, a stay in what she terms "the nuthouse" - “I can’t really remember how long I was there, but my cousin was there too, so that was nice” - and depression that led to the start of her "hobby," running a juice stand that called for a practical uniform of shift dresses that wouldn't show stains.

The rest is, of course, history: the gaily printed shifts became a sensation with the Palm Beach society set, former classmate Jackie Kennedy wore one in a magazine spread, and Lilly Pulitzer became a household name, selling not just pink and green dresses, but embroidered trousers and capris, sarongs, and all manner of sportswear. Pulitzer is often credited with creating the concept of "resort" - or, as she blithely put it, "it’s always summer somewhere.” Although she closed up shop in the businesslike 80s, she sold the brand in 1993 and has continued as a creative consultant in its new incarnation. The line currently has 20 boutiques, plus department store collections. According to today's WWD, "brand extension is a significant part of the growth strategy for Lilly Pulitzer as it begins its second half-century."


Of course, was Lilly Pulitzer really ever anything but a lifestyle brand? Did people ever really love wearing luridly-colored monkeys and sea-horses? Yes, the prints were cheerful, but when you see a Lilly Pulitzer, you think "Lilly Pulitzer" and that has surely always been the point. To wear one of her dresses was to momentarily be a part of a world where sporting goofy, unflattering clothes is a mark of dashing, privilege-bred confidence, the very definition of the uniform of an insider. Its appeal now is nostalgic. As W puts it, "the Palm Beach social swirl that Rousseau recalls—in which counts sat next to carpenters at her dinner parties and, as she relishes telling, Kennedy spoon-fed John-John on her kitchen floor—has an almost mythic quality, one she laments no longer exists." But to most of us, the nostalgic appeal is at least as much for a character like Pulitzer's as for anachronistic high society. She was, of course, inseparable from that privilege, and hers was a success inexplicably linked with her connections, friends, and lifestyle. But the old-fashioned no-nonsense sense of entitlement is also what allowed Pulitzer to build a successful business in a man's world, divorce her husband and move out on her own, where many women would have been happy to leave dresses as a pleasant sideline to a socialite's life. She took her lifestyle and made it a business. Everything about her story — from the world that inspired it, to the entitlement that encouraged it, to the scope of the achievement — is part of a long-gone world. This, as much as the unapologetic silliness of the clothes themselves, is a fascinating glimpse to another time for the rest of us.

Lilly Land [W]
All the Details: The Lilly Lifestyle [WWD]

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Also, if you REALLY want to see some scary stuff, you mustn't look past the lovely 'Vineyard Vines' and 'Nantucket Reds'. Don't even ask why my states' two most famous islands insist on peddling this crap, I've asked myself TOO many times.