The word iconic gets tossed around easily these days, but Lilly Pulitzer’s vibrant shift dresses were truly emblematic of a certain time and a certain lifestyle. Famous for her vibrantly colored resort wear, the heiress and fashion designer died, at age 81, in her home in Palm Beach on Sunday. While she retired decades ago (a licensing company revived her brand in the 1990’s, putting fresh spins on her vintage prints), Pulitzer’s strong influence can be felt in today’s fashion world, with the current intense interest in color and prints.
Pulitzer began designing her wildly patterned clothes in the 1960’s and they reached their peak of popularity a decade later with the Lilly Pulitzer company topping sales at over $15 million. Not bad for a dress that was sold, at the time, only in a limited number of boutiques in places like Southampton and Palm Beach.
“Lillys,” the shorthand used by the wealthy who wore them, were the quintessential tropical uniform for women who, as Pulitzer said, “followed the sun.” Simple to the point of shapelessness, yet so colorful as to be garish, the shifts threw together colors in an abandoned way: turquoise with lime green and hot pink; orange, yellow and Kelly green; or purple, pale pink and sky blue. Flower prints were the most popular, but Pulitzer liked to incorporate anything that caught her interest: flamingos, wine glasses, pandas, sea shells, palms, tigers, or elephants.
According to the New York Times, the dresses were “really only wearable by the few who were so rich that they could afford to have bad taste.” But that description is too limiting. Yes, Jacqueline Kennedy and all the other women in the Kennedy clan donned them, as well as C.Z. Guest and everyone else who either lived that heiress life or aspired to. And yes, the dresses were decided non-urban; you needed the brightness of an unrelenting sun to stand up to them. But the carefree attitude of the prints and colors trickled down to other fashion as well.
The biggest accessory you wore with a Lilly? Either Papagallo ballet flats, in the two-tone bold colors (Kelly green with pink trim or yellow with purple) or Jack Rogers sandals. And maybe a little scarf tied under your chin. Altogether it was a very bohemian look for those who were normally so straight-laced.
“Style isn’t just about what you wear,” Pulitzer once said, “it’s about how you live life…Happy never goes out of style.” She lived boldly, colorfully, and on her own terms. That is a true fashion legacy.