Lilly Pulitzer: Queen of Prep Dies

Lilly Pulitzer automatically brings to mind vivid images of hot pink, bright yellow, and apple green, dancing across summer dresses patterned with fruit and flowers.  The heiress-turned-fashion-designer built a business around a simple concept and execution that has remained popular for over 50 years.  Lilly Pulitzer was born Lillian Lee McKim on November 10, 1931 to socialite parents in Roslyn, Long Island.  She was the middle daughter of three girls, between Mary “Mimsy” Maude and Florence “Flossie” Fitch.  Her mother was an heiress to Standard Oil, and Lilly and her sisters attended the Chapin School in Manhattan, alongside a soon-to-be notable classmate, Jacqueline Bouvier.  She attended Finch College, before leaving after one semester to work as a midwife’s assistant and as a volunteer at a Veterans Hospital in the Bronx.  Shortly after, Lilly married Herbert “Peter” Pulitzer, Jr., after meeting him on vacation in Palm Beach.  The grandson of publishing magnate, Joseph Pulitzer, the two enjoyed living on the family’s Florida estate, among groves of citrus trees.  After having three kids in five years, and growing bored at home, Lilly started selling juice of the fruit from her husband’s groves.  Squeezing the juice out of the fruit stained her clothing, so she made sleeveless shift dresses of brightly-colored cotton.  Pulitzer’s customers loved the shifts so much, she started selling them at $22.00 a piece.  The dresses soon outsold the juice, quickly moving from Palm Beach to around the world (especially after former classmate Jackie Kennedy started wearing them).  The frocks were soon dubbed “Lillys.”  In 1959, Pulitzer became the president of her own company, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc., and she designed until the early 1980s.  Her brand became popular with some of the wealthiest women in America, including the Kennedys, the Rockerfellers, and the Whitneys.  (Fun Fact: This editor was prepping, pun not intended, for a friend’s yuppie-themed party in East Hampton this weekend by whipping out my copy of The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa  Birnbach.  She mentions the Lilly Beach Dress as the quintessential item to wear for “lunch on the terrace at the club,” or something “to put on over the bathing suit.”)  The company faced bankruptcy in 1984, but was revived by Sugartown Worldwide in the 1990s.  Pulitzer retained the role of creative consultant, but was no longer involved in the administration of the company.  Eric Wilson of the New York Times reported, “Part of her reluctance to promote herself, she often said, came from her upbringing. She meticulously avoided personal publicity, as was once common to people of bottomless wealth, though she remained interested in the company.”  Ha, if only the so-called “elites” of now retained the same kind of old-world modesty – the dreadful “Real Housewives” or the Kardashians would never exist…  Lilly Pulitzer was as bright, sophisticated and classic as the brand and era she represented.  The “Queen of Prep” will be sorely missed.

One thought on “Lilly Pulitzer: Queen of Prep Dies

  1. Classy designs from a very classy lady – rest in peace, Lily! The Kardashians could certainly take some lessons from Lily – but unfortunately, we have to suffer through media coverage of their every move.

Comments are closed.