The beauty of Lilly Pulitzer dresses was that they were designed to be something of a disguise. Made of plain cotton, constructed so simply that they could be recreated at home, the modestly priced dresses embodied the “Puritan ethics of balance and value,” as Laura Jacobs wrote in a Vanity Fair profile of Lilly Pulitzer in 2003.
Didi Dress $278
Lillian Lee McKim Pulitzer Rousseau was born on November 10, 1931. An heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. She attended the Chapin School, along with the young Jacqueline Bouvier.
While on vacation in Palm Beach, she met Herbert Pulitzer Jr., known as Peter, the handsome grandson of the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and shocked her family by eloping with him in 1950, at the age of 19. The young couple settled among the citrus groves of the Pulitzer estate, holding wild parties and generally ignoring whatever was expected of them from their society peers. They had had three children within five years.
Elsa Top $158
Lowe Dress $188
With the produce from their groves, Lilly opened a juice stand on Via Mizner, just off Worth Avenue with an acquaintance from New York, Laura Robbins, a former editor at Harper’s Bazaar.
In the course of working at the juice stand, Lilly found that squeezing juice made a mess of her clothes. Seeking to camouflage the juice stains, she designed a “shift dress.” One had sleeves and the more popular of the two, the sleeveless shift. The dresses were made with bright, colorful printed cotton.
Nelle Jacket $258
Henley Dress $288
Lilly found that customers loved her dress, so she produced more in order to sell them. The duo began selling the dresses at the juice stand, for $22. Eventually, she was selling more dresses than juice, and decided to focus on designing and selling what had become known as her “Lillys.”
Soon after, she got into the fashion business full-time, while raising her three children, Peter McKim Pulitzer of Manzanita, Ore., and Palm Beach, Lillian “Minnie” Pulitzer McCluskey and Liza Pulitzer Calhoun, both of Palm Beach.
In 1959, she became president of her own company, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc. The company’s main factory was located in Miami and the fabrics were produced by the Key West Hand Print Fabrics company. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Pulitzer‘s bright, colorful clothes became a mark of membership for old-money families at play for more than five decades. Lillys were worn by Jackie O., C.Z. Guest, and society elites, such as the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys.
Beauford Jacket $248
Eddison Coat $358
In 1966, The Washington Post reported that the dresses were “so popular that at the Southampton Lilly shop on Job’s Lane they are proudly put in clear plastic bags tied gaily with ribbons so that all the world may see the Lilly of your choice. It’s like carrying your own racing colors or flying a yacht flag for identification.”
In 1969, Lilly and Peter were divorced after she returned to New York suffering from a nervous collapse, she said, that her marriage was driving her crazy.
She married Enrique Rousseau, who had worked for her first husband and then a hotel, in 1969. Although she legally changed her name to Lillian McKim Rousseau, her clothing company continued to operate under the “Lilly Pulitzer” label. Lilly continued to reside in Palm Beach. Rousseau died from cancer in 1993.
Lia Jacket $278
Thyme Skirt $128
Mrs. Rousseau continued designing until 1984, when a series of ill-timed expansions, combined with changing tastes toward more minimal designs, led the company to seek bankruptcy protection.
In 1993, the brand was relaunched by a Pennsylvania company, Sugartown Worldwide, which eventually changed its name to Lilly Pulitzer. In 2010, the brand was acquired by Oxford Industries, a Georgia based fashion company. Mrs. Rousseau continued until recently to work with the companies as an adviser and as the name and face behind the brand.
“When Lilly started the business back in the `60s, she targeted a young customer because she was young,” the company’s president, Jim Bradbeer, told the AP in 2003. “What we have done is target the daughter and granddaughter of that original customer.”
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Marley Maxi Dress $198
Today, the company maintains 75 Lilly Pulitzer Signature Stores (also known as Via Stores), several company-owned retail stores, sells to independently owned stores and is in major department stores such as Bloomingdales, Belk, Lord and Taylor, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
Along with women’s clothing, the company also produces men’s clothing, children’s clothing, maternity clothes, swimsuits, country club attire, shoes, jewelry, accessories, home collection and stationery. The company launched an exclusive Bridal Collection in 2010.
Lilly was known for hosting parties barefoot at her Palm Beach home, also published two guides to entertaining.
Lilly Pulitzer‘s net sales in 2012 were $122.6 million, according to the company.
Joslin Dress $288
Valentina Dress $198
Lilly Pulitzer died at her South County Road home on Palm Beach Island, at the age of 81, on April 7, 2013.
“Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s about how you live,” Pulitzer said in 2004.
“I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy … fruits, vegetables, politics or peacocks,” Lilly told AP in 2009. “It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy.”
“Lilly has been a true inspiration to us and we will miss her,” according to a statement on the Lilly Pulitzer brand Facebook page. “In the days and weeks ahead we will celebrate all that Lilly meant to us. Lilly was a true original who has brought together generations through her bright and happy mark on the world.” -Laura Robbins
RELATED TOPIC: Meet Palm Beach Socialite Lilly Pulitzer