Lilly Pulitzer: How a Bored Socialite Dressed Her Friends like Peacocks and Altered Fashion History

By Klara, Robert | ADWEEK, June 5, 2017 | Go to article overview

Lilly Pulitzer: How a Bored Socialite Dressed Her Friends like Peacocks and Altered Fashion History


Klara, Robert, ADWEEK


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As a New Yorker transplanted from Texas, Sarah Bray has resigned herself to a fact of fashion life here: You wear black. Everyone does, the joke goes, though the joke is largely true. But when Bray leaves the city to visit her sorority sisters from Southern Methodist University, or heads down to Palm Beach, Fla., the dictates of dress change radically. Out goes the black, and in comes the lime green, the peach, the coral and the turquoise.

In other words, on goes the Lilly Pulitzer.

"My sorority sisters are serious Lilly Pulitzer addicts," said Bray, a style writer for Town & Country. "I was in Palm Beach between Christmas and New Year's," she added, "and everyone at the Breakers was wearing Lilly Pulitzer."

Which shouldn't surprise. For nearly six decades, Lilly Pulitzer--in particular, its shift dress--has defined summertime attire for affluent women. And while the allure of Lilly is obviously all of those jubilant pastel patterns, a stronger appeal is rooted in legend--that is to say, in Lilly herself.

In 1959, following her doctor's advice to find a hobby, socialite Lilly Pulitzer opened a fruit juice stand in Palm Beach. Instead of donning an apron to catch the orange and grapefruit stains, Pulitzer went to Woolworths, bought some colorful print fabric, and had her seamstress sew a shift dress from it. Pulitzer not only wore the flashy thing, she began selling her design (price: $22 each) at her stand. When the dresses sold better than the juice, a business was born.

Without quite intending to, Pulitzer had shattered the prevailing white-glove social norms of her class. Her shift dresses (simple, sleeveless, collarless) weren't just comfortable to wear; their exuberant colors signified a new era of unconventionality and independence--an idea appealing enough to win Jackie Kennedy as an early customer. Kennedy's dress "was made from kitchen curtain material," Pulitzer later said, "and people went crazy."

Two generations later, women are still going crazy for Lilly, though it's fair to ask: Which women? …

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