Some historians argue it was Lilly Pulitzer who introduced the iconic shift dress into pop culture, but it was the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Kennedy and Whitney families that popularized the brand in a major way, making it a must-have for resort jetsetters. You may be surprised to know that these internationally recognized cheerful prints have humble beginnings – Lilly Pulitzer’s juice stand off Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.

Of course, that was simply the beginning.  Beyond that, former Town & Country executive editor Kathryn Livingston, who boasts a 20-year editorial career with Hearst Magazines, chronicled behind-the-scenes details of the life of the very private Pulitzer in: Lilly: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour, and the Birth of a Fashion Legend.

It’s the epitome of the historical society read, with fascinating stories of bold-faced names ranging from the Guests to the Phipps. Livingston’s book offers a rare glimpse into the scandals and indulgences of the Palm Beach doyennes and walks us through how Pulitzer earned her fashion stripes. Remarkably, her highly recognizable clothes still continue to trend strong today, especially with her prepster cult followers.

Here, enjoy a fun prelude to the book via this interview with Livingston.


Kathryn Livingston

However did a woman who seemed diametrically opposed to high society become a cultural influence on the civilized set?

Lilly Pulitzer was a rebellious young barefoot boho, a rule breaker who liked to walk around the exclusive, perfectly manicured streets of Palm Beach with a pet monkey on her shoulder at the time she started her fashion business. She was so different from the more formal, bejeweled, grand society leaders of America’s reigning resort of the era, like Mrs. Merriwhether Post or Mary Sanford, who glittered at all the glamorous charity events and ruled all the ball committees.

But Lilly was born into the highest of high society, and like many of the fourth generation of some of America’s East Coast families who made their colossal fortunes in such companies as Standard Oil and U.S. Steel, she was a former debutante and preppie turned rich hippie of the Sixties. Good-looking, hard-working college dropouts both, she and her handsome husband Peter Pulitzer were pioneering an alternative lifestyle, more casual and close to the land, staying year-round in the tropics.

Somewhat modestly, Lilly attributes her almost instant success as a designer by saying: “It was the time, the place and the name.” The time was the dawn of an international youthquake. After the restraint of the post-war years, the late 1950s and early 1960s were the start of a more uninhibited, more sensuous approach to life, music and way of dressing. In Europe, Emilio Pucci was introducing never-before-seen color combinations in brazen geometric prints of clingy, body-hugging silk jersey. “Swinging London” had the Beatles and miniskirts. Suddenly there was a bursting forth of color everywhere: more Technicolor movies, more color pages in fashion magazines, new breakthroughs in the quality of dyes and fabrics that were better at accepting brilliant prints. Then came the name. “Pulitzer” was sort of a household word, associated with the prestigious prizes in journalism and the arts and the fountain in front of New York’s Plaza Hotel. The place, of course, was Palm Beach, where the media blitz had arrived in 1960 with the youthful and stylish newly elected occupants of the White House, Jack and Jackie Kennedy, who frequently vacationed there.


Tell us, how did the brand change after Jackie Kennedy was photographed in a Lilly Pulitzer for Life magazine?

This photo, taken by Cecil Staughton, now in the Kennedy Presidential Library, literally catapulted Lilly’s fashion brand to national fame. Until then, Lilly was mainly known only in Florida--Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Sarasota, places where she would eventually open her first boutiques. And although The Lilly, as her earliest cotton shifts were called, had already been photographed on prominent women like Dina Merrill, Candice Bergen and Happy Rockefeller in the tropics, it was not until that remarkable 1962 photo of Jackie--in her red-and-white gingham Lilly shift, with her tanned bare legs dangling from beneath the high-slit hem--shown relaxing with the leader of the free world and their two adorable children on a white Hyannis Port porch against the sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean, that pace-setting women from Nantucket to Grosse Pointe and Santa Barbara took notice of the label. The image was as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July.  But it also gave the country a glimpse of leisure at its civilized, upper-crust best. Jackie ultimately became one of the 20th century’s greatest style icons


What do you think it is about the Lilly Pulitzer design that’s loved by mothers, daughters and granddaughters?

There is a giddy, euphoric quality to Lilly prints. Cartoon crocodiles, giant hibiscus flowers, tilted martini glasses--they have paradoxically both a childlike innocence and grownup sophistication. Their pared-down, easy skim over the figure fit many female shapes. Their prices are relatively affordable.


Do you have a favorite Lilly piece or fond memory of an afternoon in one?

Yes: A flared, perfectly lined, lace-hemmed Sea Island cotton skirt that is at least thirty years old. It is predominantly blue and yellow, swirling with butterflies and blossoms. This skirt now belongs to my daughter. She asked me for it.


Photo by Stefan Svensson

If we popped by her Palm Beach estate unexpectedly, do you think we’d find Lilly in Lilly?

Yes. But probably not a shift dress. More likely a Lilly tunic over white pants.


What would we be surprised to know about this iconic woman?

Her incredibly funny and totally original one-liners. Even though she is a revered fashion legend and made millions of dollars herself, she is very polite and down-to-earth, loves to garden and dig into the earth, and is not afraid to dirty her hands chopping and cooking for her large family of children, step-children, their exes and her grandchildren or even clean the oven afterwards herself.

And for fun, what’s your fashion philosophy?

Know your body and what colors flatter your face. Do study the pages of fashion magazines for the latest silhouettes, the unusual signature touch that say "this year"–even it is just a belt or the way a scarf is tied or the manner in which the sleeves are cut, shoulders are shaped and the length at which a jacket is cropped over a skirt or pants.  Build a wardrobe of classics, such as cashmere sweaters, quality T-shirts, practical and wearable trousers. Be careful about overly trendy footwear, over-designed handbags and overpowering jewelry.

Tell us your favorite quote.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may / Old Time is still a-flying…” by Robert Herrick

Reading any books you can’t put down?

I’ve been recently into three of W.G, Sebald’s books: The Emigrants, Vertigo and Austerlitz; am about to start A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by the Southern novelist Joshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama.

Have a spring style tip?

The really novel windowpane checks and plaids from Chanel in pink-and-white and from Marni in brown-and-beige look fresh and prophetic to me; so do the small-waisted bell-sleeved and bell-skirted dresses by Jil Sander. Tiny graphic black and white prints everywhere and big blocks of various colors partitioning crisply tailored, more boxy coats in off-beat ways are riveting.

Click here to read Heather's Fashion I.Q. in our April issue.

Tags: , , , , ,