Clothes That Say Summer : Lilly Pulitzer

Is it possible to buy into a lifestyle?  I can’t help but ask that question when confronting a Lilly Pulitzer garment.  Today the brand seems to say “Summertime Preppy” even more than it did when it first hit the fashion scene in the early 1960s.  Lilly herself lived that lifestyle – attended private school with Jackie Bouvier, married a Pulitzer Publishing heir and moved to south Florida.  And somewhere along the line she created a line of clothes that seemed to epitomize the life style of the rich and prep school educated.

Lilly Pulitzer started making her famous dresses in 1959.   She and her dressmaker designed the original little cotton print shift dress to hide the stains she acquired working in her Palm Beach, Florida, fruit juice stand.   Before long, people were asking about the dress, so Pulitzer began selling the dresses at the stand.

By 1961 she had a lot more orders for her “Lilly” dresses than for juice, so she closed the stand and concentrated on the clothing business, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc.  She got a tremendous boost when first lady Jackie Kennedy  was pictured in Life magazine wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress.

Her dresses were brightly colored and often had whimsical prints that usually incorporated her name, Lilly, somewhere in the design.  Key West Handprinting was used to produce the early fabrics.  She also began using a special hem lace, with the name Lilly  spelled out in it.  Her dresses spread far beyond Palm Beach, and proliferated nationally throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The earlier dresses are 100% cotton and usually have metal zippers.   Sometime in the mid to late 1960s Lilly Pulitzer started using a 65% Poly/35% cotton blend.  These later 1960s dresses usually have nylon zippers. Also, in the late 1960s, Lilly Pulitzer started making garments besides dresses, such as shorts, casual tops and slacks.

Lilly Pulitzer did a little girl’s line, named for her daughter, Minnie, and a junior line named for daughter, Liza.  Accessories, such as hats made to match the garments were added.  A men’s line was established  in the early 1970s.  The company also began to use other fabrics, such as printed cotton and polyester knits.

As a general rule, the earlier Lilly labels are orange, and the ones after the mid 70s are green.  You can see examples at the Vintage Fashion Guild website.

Lilly Pulitzer retired in 1984 and closed her business, but the Lilly Pulitzer brand was reborn in 1993 under new ownership.  Today Lilly Pulitzer fabrics are named, and the company has branched off into stationery, accessories and shoes.  The emphasis is still on the colorful and whimsical prints introduced by Ms. Pulitzer in 1959, but today the colors are much more in line with what one thinks of as “preppy.”  I’m talking lots of bright pink and navy with splashes of bright green.  And if you are really lucky (and belong to the right sorority) there’s a Lilly print designed just for your group.

16 Comments

Filed under Designers, Vintage Clothing

16 responses to “Clothes That Say Summer : Lilly Pulitzer

  1. You’re so right about the Lilly Lifestyle!! I own a few vintage Lilly pieces and one contemporary dress, all found while thrifting. While I love the attention to detail and quality – double lining, bra installed in the older dresses even!

    But I have such a hard time reconciling that with the price point of newer Lilly as well as the whole “This is the type of person who wears Lilly” as I’m definitely not the prep-school educated, pearls wearing sorority gal that the brand is made for, nor do I want people thinking I’m the kind of person who would ever think of spending $300+ on a cotton blend shift, no matter how well it fits.

    I’ve always hoped I could find someone who could replicate a Lilly dress for me (with the added improvement of pockets :-)) but without the Lilly prints and general “baggage” that comes with such a well recognized brand. If I could do that I’d have a dozen made and wear one every day, all summer!

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    • Betty, all you need is the right vintage pattern, some vintage prints, and a dressmaker. Or better yet, take a few sewing lessons, as this is the easiest dress to make.

      I agree about the line being so recognizable. I’ve had a few thrifted pieces of the modern stuff, and I just could not wear it. I felt like a walking advertisement!

      And honestly, the line is just too young looking for me. My 5 year old great niece wears it quite well!

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      • Glad I’m not the only one who feels like a walking billboard sometimes! I may have to just wear my dress around the house 🙂

        On the very same day that you posted this, I happened to be in my local grocery store here in PA and what do I see but…Lilly Pulitzer branded Barnum’s Animal Crackers!

        Lilly Pulitzer Animal Crackers

        Funny thing is that when I flipped the box over I saw it was something to do with Operation Smile, and thought that there might be a donation made for every box sold. The press release I found seems to indicate that Lilly has made a donation to the cause, but buying the crackers doesn’t do anything additional.
        http://www.operationsmile.org/news_events/media-room/2012/lilly-pulitzer-and-nabisco.html

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  2. They are lovely. I love how you research items so well. I do love the fifties prints the best.

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  3. I remember being very disappointed when the company went to poly/cotton blend – I never thought the fabric looked as crisp as the all-cotton. There was a local Lilly store in Bryn Mawr, PA (suburb of Philadelphia) which always packaged one’s purchase in a clear plastic bag printed with the Lilly logo and tied with pink and green ribbon!
    Thanks for your excellent account of this all-American company!

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  4. solveg

    What a great article. I wonder why she was operating a fruit stand?

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  5. When I think of Lilly Pulitzer I think of the “ladies” at the New Canaan country club. Thanks for the information (as usual) Lizzie.

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  6. Pingback: Vanda Fashions – Key West Hand Prints | The Vintage Traveler

  7. Sandra Phillips

    The vintage Lillys always had her name hidden in the design of the Key West Fabric. Key West Fabric is out of business and I believe the fabric is made in China. Sandy

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  8. Pingback: “They Took Off Like Zingo” | The Vintage Traveler

  9. Bill Murphy

    Are men’s clothes still being in China or they all vintage?

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