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.