Photo copyright Lilly Pulitzer, Howell Conant
I’m not sure what “zingo” is, but that is how Lilly Pulitzer described the wild success of her tropical print dresses. As you have probably already heard, Pulitzer died yesterday at the age of 81.
In 1957, Lilly Pulitzer was a rich Palm Beach housewife. A breakdown of sorts led her to New York, fleeing her life in Palm Beach, Florida. Her doctor suggested she find something to do, and that she did. She returned to Florida, and a couple of years later she and a friend started a fruit juice stand.
She and her dressmaker designed the original little cotton print shift dress to hide the stains the women acquired working in the fruit juice stand. Before long, people were asking about the dress, so Pulitzer began selling the dresses at the stand. At first there were two designs – the basic sleeveless shift, and the shift with short sleeves.
Pulitzer got a tremendous boost when first lady Jackie Kennedy was pictured in Life magazine wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress. By 1961 she had a lot more orders for her “Lilly” dresses than for juice, so she closed the stand and opened Lilly Pulitzer, Inc. Within a few years the company was selling 15 million dollars in dresses a year.
Her dresses were brightly colored and often had whimsical prints that usually incorporated her name, Lilly, somewhere in the design. 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.
Above is an example of a mid 1960s dress. The early to mid 1960s dresses are 100% cotton and usually have metal zippers. Key West Hand Prints was used to produce the fabrics.
The label above is from the 1960s dress. The early dresses often had the second label that read 100% cotton, and gave the care instructions. 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 (seen with her in the 1963 photo above). 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 jersey and polyester knits.
The dress above is from the late 1960s. It is still made from 100% cotton, but has a nylon zipper. Note the addition of “Lilly Pulitzer Inc.” on the label. A little later, the copyright symbol © was added, probably in the early 1970s.
These 1970s shorts are made from a 65% Poly/35% cotton blend fabric.
As a general rule, the earlier Lilly labels have orange print, and the ones after the mid 70s have green print . You can see examples at the Vintage Fashion Guild Label Resource.
Even a mention in the 1980 Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach could not save the company. Changing fashion styles forced Lilly Pulitzer, Inc. into bankruptcy in 1984. The business closed, Lilly retired, and unfortunately, the company records and archive were thrown out. In 1993 the label was revived under new owners, and it quickly regained the success of the label’s early years. Lilly became a sometime consultant to the company. Today the emphasis is still on the original bright colors and whimsical prints introduced by Ms. Pulitzer in 1959.
Label introduced in 1993.
It’s really quite amazing to think about just how influential Lilly Pulitzer’s simple tropical prints have been and how they continue to be copied today. Maybe it is just the idea of buying into the tropical or coastal “lifestyle”. 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 Kennedy, 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 lifestyle of the rich and prep school educated.