Bright, colorful and easy to wear—these are the qualities that earned Lilly Pulitzer fame. Born Lilly McKim in New York in 1931, Pulitzer was an original from the beginning. After attending the private college prep school Miss Porter’s, Pulitzer abandoned her high society upbringing (her mother was a Standard Oil fortune heiress) and moved to Kentucky to work for the Frontier Nurses Service. She met Herbert Pulitzer Jr. (grandson of publisher Joseph Pulitzer) while vacationing in Palm Beach. They eloped in 1952—a scandalous action for the time.
The next few years saw the couple hosting parties, neglecting their responsibilities and starting a family. After a short return to New York, Pulitzer realized she needed to do something more with her life. So, she started a citrus stand in Florida with her friend Laura Robbins, a former Harper’s Bazaar editor. One day, the duo had the idea to create simple cotton shift dresses with bright patterns that would hide the stains of the citrus they were selling. They sold the dresses at their stand for $22 in two silhouettes: one with sleeves, and one without. They sold like hot cakes. Palm Beach residents wore the shifts, simply called “Lillys,” for any occasion. And when Pulitzer’s former Miss Porter’s classmate Jackie Kennedy was photographed in Capri wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress, the budding designer’s business really took off.
The line flourished in the 1960s and 70s, growing to include a men’s line with brightly colored pants and blazers. But in the 80s, it floundered, failing to keep up with changing design preferences. In 1984, when attempts at expanding the line failed, the company filed for bankruptcy. Even though Sugartown Worldwide (which was bought by Oxford Industries in 2010) resurrected the line in the 1990s, Pulitzer never came back to her role as designer. After occasionally consulting with the company, she retired, throwing out most of her archives. Pulitzer went on to live a quiet life, and she passed away in 2013. She was never really in it for the fame—she was originally just looking for something to do, on her terms. Pulitzer once said, “I didn’t set out to be unusual or different. I just wanted to do things my way.”
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