Commentary

Lilly Pulitzer, 81, Fashion 'Designer By Accident'

The story of designer Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau, who died yesterday at 81, is nothing less than a fairy tale of making lemonade out of lemons. And it’s right out of the Kennedys' Camelot, too.

“When 21-year-old Lilly eloped with Peter Pulitzer, they escaped the hustle and bustle of New York City for the sun and sand of Palm Beach,” reads the intro to a tribute on LillyPulitzer.com. “In the shadow of Peter’s citrus groves, Lilly opened a juice stand. To disguise the juice stains on her clothing, she had made a sleeveless dress made from colorfully-printed cotton.”

Pulitzer was, in the words of the Washington Post’s Emily Langer, “the accidental fashion designer who dreamed up the Lilly, the raucously colored, simply cut frock that since the 1960s has filled the closets of women who live or wish to live in an eternal summertime.” 

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Okay, so it wasn’t a strictly rags-to-riches journey to the orange groves (as it was for some folks). She was to the oil fields born, a Standard Oil heiress on her mother’s side and reserved “socialite” in her own right, as the obits inform us.

Her upbringing “helped shape Pulitzer's grasp of a privileged lifestyle that so many wanted, but few were privy to,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Erin Weinger. “Still today, putting on a zippy resort-friendly Pulitzer frock makes one feel as if they should be sipping gin at the country club, mother's pearls and all.”

As for that official bio, as you might expect, “the story was more complicated -- ” reports Eric Wilson in the New York Times; “full of joie de vivre though not entirely happy at the beginning -- but then the beauty of Lilly Pulitzer dresses was that they were designed to be something of a disguise.”

What’s more, the middle class could afford them. But that doesn’t mean that they should, Wilson suggests.

“They were accessible to most, but really wearable only by the few who were so rich that they could afford to have bad taste,” he writes. “A minidress of green peacocks dancing with merry seashells is not for just anyone.”

As for the Camelot angle, among those who could carry it off was First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and you know what that meant. 

“Jackie wore one of my dresses -- it was made from kitchen curtain material -- and people went crazy,” Pulitzer and co-author Jay Mulvaney write in Essentially Lilly, A Guide to Colorful Entertaining. “They took off like zingo. Everybody loved them, and I went into the dress business.”

With a little help from her choice connections, of course. Jackie had been a classmate at Miss Porter’s School. And Pulitzer was always sure to credit Laura Robbins Clark, a former editor at Harper’s Bazaar, as she did in a juicy 2003 profile by Laura Jacobs that ran in Vanity Fair.

The two were “friends and partners, not on paper, simply the way two women do –- ‘foxhole buddies,’” Clark tells Jacobs. They had, in fact, bonded after Pulitzer suffered a “nervous breakdown” following the birth of three children “in rapid succession” in the late 1950s, the AP’s Jennifer Kay reports. After working together squeezing oranges, they apparently “simultaneously” came up with the idea for the shifts.

According to a 2000 New Yorker article cited by the AP, a doctor at a mental hospital told her: “’You're not happy because you're not doing anything,’ and I said, ‘I don't know how to do anything.’ I'd always had everything done for me, always had my nanny and my mummy making up my mind. The doctor said, ‘You've got to go out and find something to do.’”

Lilly and Peter Pulitzer were eventually divorced. She married Enrique Rousseau, a Cuban emigre who took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1969, Mike Clary reports in the [South Florida] Sun Sentinel. “Together they were known for hosting big parties at their house, which they dubbed ‘The Jungle,’” Clary writes.

There were business ups and downs, too. She filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the mid-1980s and the label was revived about a decade later by Sugartown Worldwide. “Pulitzer was only marginally involved in the new business but continued reviewing new prints from Florida,” Kay reports. 

CNN has a slide show of the more more recent Lilly “florals” here; New York reviews “her two-story Madison Avenue boutique" where "the threads ... haven’t changed much over the decades” here.

“When Lilly started the business back in the '60s, she targeted a young customer because she was young,” James B. Bradbeer Jr. one of the owners of Sugartown, told the AP in 2003. “What we have done is target the daughter and granddaughter of that original customer.”

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