Born: Lillian McKim in Roslyn, New York. Family: Married Herbert (Pete) Pulitzer (divorced, 1969); married Enrique Rousseau (died 1993); children: Peter, Minnie, Liza. Career: Formed business in Palm Beach, Florida, for sale of women's shifts, 1959; president, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc., 1961-84; children's dresses, called "Minnies," introduced, 1962; Pulitzer Jeans introduced, 1963; Men's Stuff line introduced, 1969; nearly three dozen stores nationwide, late 1970s; Chapter 11 filed and business closed, 1984; new line of Lillys designed by Marty Karabees, 1986; rights to line purchased by Sugartown Worldwide, Inc., 1992; relaunched and expanded Lilly lines, mid-1990s; sleepwear introduced, 1998; signed licensing deal with Dan River Home Fashions, 2000; profiled in the New Yorker, 2000.
Fairchild, John, The Fashionable Savages, Garden City, New York,1965.
Bender, Marylin, The Beautiful People, New York, 1967.
Lambert, Eleanor, The World of Fashion: People, Places, Resources, New York, London, 1976.
Moin, David, "Lilly Pulitzer's Prizes: A 'Shift' into the 1980s," in New York Apparel News, February 1984.
Reed, Susan, "Lilly Pulitzer's Preppy Prints to Get a Second Life," in People, 23 June 1986.
Staples, Kate, "Pulitzer's Prizes," in Mademoiselle, May 1993.
Koski, Lorna, "The Return of Lilly," in W, October 1993.
Monget, Karen, "Lilly Pulitzer's Latest—Sleepwear," in WWD, 27April 1998.
Yazigi, Monique P., "The Pink-and-Green Police…," in the New York Times, 17 May 1998.
"Textile Briefs," in HFN (Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network), 28 February 2000.
"Beachy Keen…Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau Enjoys a Second Blossoming…," in People, 4 September 2000.
MacFarquahar, Larissa, "Everything Lilly," in the New Yorker, 4September 2000.
According to the legend, it all began with an orange juice stand begun by a bored (and rich) housewife in October 1959. The boss brought a dozen dresses made by her dressmaker from fabric bought at a nearby Woolworth's (in bright colorful prints that wouldn't show orange juice stains) and sold them off a pipe-rack. "I started it as a lark," Pulitzer remembered years later to Lorna Koski of W, "I just knew what I liked." Within five years, it seemed as if every woman in America had at least one sleeveless, back-zippered "Lilly"and more or less lived in the comfortable lifestyle of the the dress represented.
The Lilly designed by Pulitzer was a simple shift or chemise, an unarticulated little dress that caught the attention of women everywhere, including boarding-school chum Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. John Fairchild, writing in The Fashionable Savages (New York, 1965) explained, "Watch the chemise make a comeback with the masses… Just look at the Lilly, those chemises designed by Lilly Pulitzer, who has a gold mine in those little nothing, beautiful print chemises… All the top stores clamor for them—the same fashion they had on their markdown racks a few years back. The only difference is the Lilly is lined and [its] shape controlled."
There is, however, always a big difference between the uncomplicated Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress, the Halston Ultrasuede shirtwaist or other icons of style, and all the competition. Pulitzer invented nothing; she wasn't really a designer—but she provided a uniform of sorts to women of the early and mid-1960s. The nondesign of the Lilly was its allure; a perky, bright, and unpretentious shift in polished cotton chintz met an American need for personal style amidst homogenous culture. Eleanor Lambert, writing in The World of Fashion, (New York, 1976) describes its evolution, "first a 'snob' uniform, then a general fashion craze."
Pulitzer had long been a powerful family name in America, and its associations with Palm Beach grandeur made vague allusions to wealth and aristocracy, but the dress was easily accessible. One of the elements of its popularity was it appealed not only across class lines, but across all ages of women, serving young women who might aspire to more than Laugh-In shifts, and style to women of a certain age who found the simplified form a kind of chaste elegance. Especially in an era influenced by the easy and unadorned grace of Jackie Kennedy, who became First Lady. As Marylin Bender reported in The Beautiful People (New York, 1976), "the fact that Jacqueline, Ethel, and Joan Kennedy were Lilly-fans didn't hurt at all."
Bender quoted Pulitzer as saying, "The great thing about the Lilly is that you wear practically nothing underneath." In this inner simplicity as well as the outward simplicity in silhouette and bold tropical print, Pulitzer understood her time as much as she understood herself. Pulitzer was said to have worked with her dressmaker to come up with an alternative to trousers for the leisure life of Palm Beach, as she felt she didn't look good in pants. The alternative arrived at was nothing more than the classic housedress, sanctioned a little by Balenciaga's 1950s chemise, brightened by the tropical palette, and rarefied by the connection to grand lifestyle.
Only in America could the "Lilly" have happened as it did—a triumph of nondesign, an aristocratic aura bestowed on a distinctly unaristocratic idea, a dress that at a modest $30 to $75 retail exemplified its time. The mid-1960s youthquake, however, with its extreme minis followed by paper dresses and other experiments made the Lilly recede somewhat from fashion. In the 1970s Pulitzer opened retail shops across the U.S., numbering nearly three dozen by late in the decade. The Lilly, which had waxed and waned, was rediscovered in the 1980s and again became the chicest shift; yet by 1984 sales had fallen off so sharply Pulitzer was forced to close her boutiques and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
In fashion, where everything old is new again, the Lilly experienced another renaissance in 1986 when designer Marty Karabees introduced a line, then again in the early 1990s when the Lilly Pulitzer label was acquired by Sugartown Worldwide Inc., run by entrepreneur James B. Bradbeer, Jr. and his partners. Bradbeer reintroduced the Lilly chemise and a host of other designs including sportswear and swimwear for women and girls, and planned a foray into men's products as well. Pulitzer sleepwear was launched in 1998 at luxury retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and specialty chains, and the following year a new housewares collection was slated for release. The Pulitzer home collection became a reality in early 2000 through a licensing deal with Dan River Home Fashions. Luxury bed linens and a bath collection debuted in April, marking a new era for the Lilly-inspired prints designed more than three decades before.
updated by Owen James