Lilly Pulitzer's Past Is As Wild As Her Dress Patterns

Lilly Pulitzer
Photo: Photo Courtesy of Lilly Pulitzer® /Howell Conant

If you're planning your next vacation to Palm Beach and want to fit in with the locals, there's only one designer to even consider wearing—Lilly Pulitzer. Since the mid-1950s the designer has been putting out brightly-colored clothing, which have made her the go-to designer for Palm Beach socialites, Hilton Head housewives, and Gulf Coast fashionistas alike. Now, Town & Country has put together an incredible story looking back at the Southern designer's early days.

Well before Lillian McKim Pulitzer was a household name (at least among the most fashionable households), she was a young woman from a good family with a few funny predilections, including loving martinis, loathing underwear ("she rarely wore it," notes Town & Country), and had a pet monkey who sat on her shoulder as she strolled around town barefoot.

When Pulitzer was a young mother (she married into the family behind the Pulitzer Prize), she was struck by what was most likely post-partum depression and the cure her doctor prescribed was that she needed to find something to do. Since her husband owned an orchard, she decided to open a juice stand. After spending time in the juice stand, she found herself daydreaming of bright, patterned dresses that would "hide the juice stains," be made of fabric "thick enough to go commando," and were "unfitted, to keep comfortable and cool in the Florida heat," per T&C. Soon, her now-iconic shift dress was born.

Pulitzer's vibrant, brilliantly-patterned clothing started to pick up steam, popping up in stores far from the South and earning fans in Nantucket, Newport, and sunny California. Pulitzer's clothing line got a big boost, though, thanks to a very fashionable fan—Jackie Kennedy. The first lady was photographed wearing one of Pulitzer's polka-dot shift dresses during a trip to Capri, Italy in 1962. As Pulitzer herself said, according to T&C, the business "took off like a zingo," after that.

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From there, her company grew and grew and Pulitzer's name became as recognizable as her signature prints. While the company has changed over the years as it was bought and sold and bought again, the styles are still as recognizable as ever, which is just how Pulitzer designed it. "'The Lilly' doesn't really follow trends," Pulitzer said in April of 1978. "It has become a kind of classic after all these years, kind of on the order of a Chanel suit. It doesn't change, you can always recognize one."

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