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Lilly Pulitzer's Main Street Legacy Beyond Prep

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) --Lilly Pulitzer, the doyenne of the bright pink and green "shift dress" spotted from Palm Beach to Nantucket, died yesterday, but her legacy is not as stitched into class elitism as one might think.

Born in New York in 1931, Lillian Lee McKim married Peter Pulitzer Jr. and settled down in Palm Beach. In the late 1950s, she started selling oranges from her husband's nearby groves and opened up a juice stand on Via Mizner. She started buying loud fabrics to hide the juice stains that were inevitable and started working with a local seamstress to incorporate these vibrant fabrics into clothing. And her business was born.

"Her story is so funny, so counter-intuitive--she was bored, had kids, opened an orange juice stand," said Lisa Birnbach, co-author of The Official Preppy Handbook. "All the socialites these days, their husbands are in banking, so what would they do now, set up little check cashing stands?"

In 1962 First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, was photographed wearing a "Lilly" on the cover of LIFE magazine. The brand--with its blithe colors and free-flowing seams--catered to the elite lifestyle but had an appeal that extended beyond.

"At first you could only buy [the shift dress] in Lake Placid, Rye, Nantucket, Greenwich--in other words, Resort Town, U.S.A.," Birnbach said. "But the more widely available it became, the more democratic."

This aspirational bent to the company, serving women beyond alumnae of Miss Porter's School who took yacht holidays, allowed the business to grow. From the 1960s to the early '80s, the business boomed and catered toward women, children and men with revenue of more than $15 million.

"There was no master plan of taking over the WASP world," Birnbach said. Some of her innovations simply fell into her lap.

Pulitzer didn't wear underwear, Birnbach explained, and only after she got in an aircraft accident where her bright skirt left her exposed, did she think to create bloomers with the same floral pattern as her dress.

Of course, that freedom embodied the laissez-faire of the elite's leisure but with an unpretentious aspect appealing to everyone.
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