Lilly Pulitzer History

Socialite - Free Spirit - Entrepreneur

How many free spirited ladies of privilege can you name who became entrepreneurs in the uptight era of the 1950s? There is only one, and she is a true American original: Lilly Pulitzer. What began as a way to relieve boredom and satisfy a lifelong desire to "Do Something" grew into a designer fashion empire, now celebrating its 50th Jubilee. The eye-popping prints, the Palm Beach lifestyle, the epitome of preppy style, here is how it all began.

Miss Lillian Lee McKim was born in 1931 in New York to a life of extreme privilege. Hers was a world most of us cannot imagine; a place in which servants did everything for a young lady, down to tying her shoelaces. Family trips were in a private railroad coach, and Lilly Lee, as she was nicknamed,was educated at all of the "right schools". She began at the Chapin School in New York City, where she was classmates with the Bouvier sisters, Jackie and Lee. From there, Lilly went on to attend another of the East Coast elite schools, Miss Porter's in Connecticut, from which she graduated in 1949.


She Was No Debutante

Ever the individual, Lilly was far too relaxed to conform to the strictures of the upper class society to which she belonged. After Miss Porter's, she started at Finch in New York, which was as much a finishing school for the daughters of the American aristocracy as it was a college. Miss McKim, however, lasted only one semester at Finch, as an education in preparing to be an elegant socialite wasn't her cup of tea. As she would often say, Lilly felt the need to get out into the world and do something with her life.

The desire to do something useful led Lilly to places that were far different from the rarefied environs in which she had been raised. Rather than becoming a debutante, she joined the Frontier Nurse Service, and traveled to rural locations like the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky; at times the young lady who grew up traveling in private rail cars would make her way through the hill country on the back of a donkey. Lilly's next adventure took her to Veteran's Hospital in the Bronx, where she volunteered as a nurse's aid.

At the time when most of her high society friends were planning grand weddings, the impulsive and high spirited Lilly McKim eloped. In 1950, she married Peter Pulitzer (grandson of the publisher Joseph Pulitzer), and the newlyweds ran off to Palm Beach. At the time Palm Beach was the winter playground of the rich and famous (as it still is today), but it was totally deserted in the summer season. Lilly Pulitzer never worried about doing things in the socially acceptable or proper way, however, and she decided to set up a year round home in the lush tropical setting.

Boredom Leads To Orange Juice Business

Lilly and Peter Pulitzer quickly became famous for their relaxed attitude (no other wealthy couple walked barefoot down tony Worth Avenue), and their fantastic parties. Entertaining friends and family was a way of life for Lilly, though as usual, she did it in her own way. Parties at the Pulitzer home centered not in the formal dining room, but around the kitchen. Remember that it was the 1950s, and that simply was not the way things were done in polite society. But Lilly always did things her own way, and she had the charisma to make it all work.

There came a time when simply being a great hostess was not enough for the young wife. After a nervous breakdown, which a doctor diagnosed as nothing more than a case of being terribly bored, Lilly decided that it was high time that she set out to try something new. What she settled on was selling fresh oranges from her husband's groves in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Every morning, he would fly his little plane down and bring back sacks of fruit for Lilly to sell. She began by selling the oranges door to door at the grand houses in Palm Beach. Stop and think about this for a moment: a rich socialite with all of the right connections, selling fruit from the back of a station wagon to the servants of her rich neighbors – and loving every minute of it. There is no doubt that Lilly Pulitzer was not like other women of her time!

The orange business was very successful, and before long, Lilly was selling gift boxes of fruit. As things kept growing, she ended up opening a tiny little shop on the Via Mizner, a Mediterranean style shopping plaza. Business was good and Lilly's shop soon became known as not only a great place to get a glass of fresh squeezed juice, but as a place to hang out and have fun. Anywhere that Lilly went, a party was sure to follow.

Orange Juice Stains Lead To Dress Patterns

The only problem was that by the end of the day, her dresses were covered with splashes of fruit juice. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and from this aha! moment, a fashion empire would be born. The problem of the messy dresses was solved by having her dressmaker (how many young entrepreneurs have their own dressmaker?) whip up a few simple shift dresses in busy patterns colored just like tropical fruit juices. Not only were the eyecatching dresses practical, they were a great hit with customers. Before long, the demand for Lilly's shift dresses was so great that she had her dressmaker sew up a dozen to sell in the juice stand. Soon thereafter, Lilly Pulitzer was out of the juice business, and into the fashion business.


Jackie Bouvier Becomes A Fan

There is no doubt that Lilly Pulitzer's social connections and innate charm helped her dresses to be so popular. She has the joy de vivre that makes her the sort of woman you would be happy to emulate. Her easygoing style surely had as much to do with the success of Lilly's dresses as the colorful tropical prints and comfortable styles did. It was a fellow Chapin alum that helped to launch the Lilly Pulitzer line. During the Camelot era of the early 1960s, another dashing young couple of privilege spent time in Palm Beach: President John F. Kennedy Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The First Lady took to her former classmate's whimsical dresses, and was photographed wearing one on vacation by Life Magazine. When the picture hit the newsstands, the Lilly Pulitzer craze really took off.

Lilly Pulitzer's dresses are so iconic of the casual attire of the East Coast preppy today that it might be hard to remember how revolutionary they were in the early 1960s. Before Lilly introduced the ladies who lunch to her comfy and stylish shift dresses, Palm Beach high society always dressed to the nines in hats, stockings, and prim dresses, even during the day. After Lilly came along, the fashion scene of the leisure class was forever changed to include colorful sleeveless dresses worn with nothing more than a cute pair of flat sandals and some pearl jewelry. (And in Lilly's case, literally nothing more; she strongly advocated going without underwear in the hot Florida weather!)

Lily Pulitzer Colors

From its unlikely beginning in a fruit stand, Lilly Pulitzer's empire continued to grow. She introduced collections for men, children, and pursuits like tennis and golf. Lilly had three children, Peter, Liza, and Minnie, and family was an important part of her life. She named the collections for little girls after her own two girls; the Lilly Pulitzer collection was designed to fit her own lifestyle, one which happened to be a similar lifestyle to those of the wealthy women who were her clients. Lilly Pulitzer was a woman who understood the power of special details; most of the patterns have her loopy signature hidden somewhere within them, and the dresses were finished with a customized hem lace bearing her name.

After the initial signature shift dresses, just called "Lillys" by the women who loved them, the line expanded to include skirts, pants, and shorts, all in her famous bright and cheerful patterns. The classic Lilly colors are hot pink, lime green, and aqua blue, with pops of canary yellow, bright orange, and a touch of purple. Although in the beginning, the dresses were made from fabric purchased at stores, it wasn't long before Lilly was designing her own custom prints. She created a world of whimsical animals, tropical flowers, and beach motifs, all done in her instantly recognizable color palette.

Putting on a Lilly dress or skirt was like wearing your commitment to the good life, one filled with happy afternoons with children at the beach and cocktails on the terrace of the country club by night. It was more than just fashion – Lilly was a lifestyle. Indeed, the Lilly Pulitzer label has been worn by many well-heeled ladies, starting with those in Palm Beach, and then on to other preppy enclaves around the country. The line also made its way into high end department stores; Lilly is carried by luxury retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue today.

A Preppy Handbook Star Is Born

The Preppy Look

Lilly and Peter Pulitzer divorced in 1969, and Lilly remarried a lawyer named Enrique Rousseau, with whom she remained until his death in 1993. Despite the divorce, Lilly decided to keep the name Pulitzer, under which she had built her fashion empire. The business continued doing well, until in 1984, Lilly decided to retire and close the business. This came as a shock to many and was devastating to her devoted fans. The pink and green world that Lilly Pulitzer had created was right in line with the preppy lifestyle of the 80s, and her company was going strong at the time she retired. Lilly pieces were named as "must haves" in Lisa Birnbach's 1980 tongue-in-cheek bestseller "The Official Preppy Handbook".

Retirement And Return

Lilly has said that she decided to retire to spend more time with her grandchildren. In addition, the company that she had started just for "something to do" that grew into a wildly successful enterprise had become real work to manage. The fun was gone, and for the fun-loving "barefoot tycoon", that was reason enough to walk away, even while the company's sales were excellent. Almost as surprising as Lilly Pulitzer's retirement was her agreement to reopen her business in 1993. The Lilly line was relaunched, to the elation of preppy girls everywhere. One thing that made the reintroduction go so smoothly is that her legions of fans had never lost their love for her classic designs and upbeat prints. All those women who bought the first Lillys still had them in their closets, and were delighted to begin adding more. The Lilly Pulitzer line is very collectible, and is highly sought after on sites like ebay.

            When the Lilly Pulitzer collection was relaunched, Lilly agreed to come aboard as a creative director, but she no longer had the responsibility for the daily operations that had turned her off from the business the first time around.  Lilly consults on the creation of the patterns, the fabrics, and the seasonal groupings that are released. Her job is to put her unique mark on each collection, to make sure it looks like "Lilly", and to ensure that it speaks to the lifestyle of her clients. Many of the newer crop of "lifestyle" designers will openly admit that they were inspired by Lilly Pulitzer, the first true lifestyle fashion designer. The list of her admirers is an A-list of American style: Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, and Tory Burch, just to name a few.

            The Lilly Pulitzer line in its current incarnation looks much like it did originally. It is designed for the same upscale preppy clientele, and is  family oriented, offering things like matching mother and daughter styles in the same print. The label is frequently seen at events like sorority functions, the Kentucky Derby, and charity events, as well as at country clubs up and down the East Coast (and even in preppy enclaves in the rest of the country).

Bridal Party Fashion

Lily Bridesmaid Dresses
Lily Bridesmaid Dresses
Mens Ties
Mens Ties

Bridal Party Fashion

One area in which Lilly Pulitzer has become particularly popular is weddings. A row of beautiful blonde bridesmaids in their matching Lilly dresses is one of the favored looks for preppy bridal parties. Interestingly enough, the relaxed style of the Lilly Pulitzer dresses is often paired with formal wedding gowns for the brides. The bridesmaids almost always accent their Lillys with classic sets of pearl bridesmaid jewelry, and for an added touch, the men in the wedding party will wear neckties in the same fabric as the bridesmaid dresses. Even the little boys can get in on the fun; one bride I know had a cape made for her ring bearer by cutting up a dress in the same print as her bridesmaids were wearing (the reluctant ring bearer was deeply entrenched in a super hero phase and refused to march down the aisle without a cape.) Lilly herself would have been delighted to see that the kindhearted bride really got her idea of a style of fun entertaining that is never stuffy or uptight, and that always puts friends and family above worrying about what others will think is proper.

Lily Pulitzer Jeep

The Lilly Pulitzer collection continues to thrive today, and is celebrating its 50th Jubilee, marking a half a decade since that first splashy shift dress was made. The brand is featured in approximately 70 signature stores (individually owned boutiques that carry a large portion of the line each season), independent boutiques (which will carry a smaller amount of the collection), several company owned boutiques, and high end department stores. Lilly Pulitzer is a privately owned company, and so is not obliged to release its financials, but Women's Wear Daily estimates that they gross more than $50 million a year wholesale. The company also says that despite the economic downturn, they are still meeting their sales goals without difficulty. The reason for their continued success? Lilly Pulitzer's clothes simply make people feel happy, which is more valuable than ever these days.

            The Lilly Pulitzer Jubilee is being commemorated with some high profile events and products, ranging from charity functions, to swimwear designed by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Brooke Shields, to a Jeep Wrangler painted in a classic Lilly pink and green floral print (the ultimate accessory for a Lilly lover!). This year also marked the introduction of the first ever line of Lilly Pulitzer fragrances. In her 80s now, the Queen of Pink and Green is still going strong, as is the company that grew from a tiny juice stand to a fashion and lifestyle empire.

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3 comments

catherine 7 years ago

Lots of fun to read!


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Seabastian 6 years ago from Raleigh Author

It is one of those great examples where the simplest idea combined with hard work can lead to a great business. Her designs are currently very popular.


paige 4 years ago

that was so cool i love lilly and go shopping there now i know a little some thing about the lilly history

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