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.

The boxy shape of the shift is not necessarily the most flattering--if you have an hour glass figure, it's going to disguise that," Birnbach said. "This is to me a meaningful point. You didn't wear it to look sexy. You didn't wear it to show off. That's very much what members of the club were like. No one thought to highlight their secondary sexual characteristics. That would be 'ick' in that class."

And so the dresses had a jewel-line cut above the clavicle--no plunging décolletage here--and were initially sold for some $20. Today, typical dresses are in the $100 to $300 range. And top-dollar was never the end-game here.

"The point about dressing this way is that all the clothes in the world of prep relative to clothing of the Marc Jacobs or Proenza Schouler--or whoever is the greatest on 7th Avenue and Europe--these clothes are American and reasonably priced." Like La Coste or Brooks Brothers, they represent a lasting quality in prep.

With the escalating tuition costs and mounting student debt, the idea of prep and privilege (and the accompanying style) still won't go away tattered onto the shores of Martha's Vineyard with other gingham and madras casualties.


Instead, Birnbach says, people even buy Lilly Pulitzer clothes in vintage stores where they're more gently priced.

"They sidestep the question of this bleak economic picture," she said. "They're almost cheaper than anything else you could buy."

Pulitzer closed the business in 1984, only to have it revived by current President James B. Bradbeer, Jr. and CEO Scott A.Beaumont, who started Sugartown Worldwide, Inc. and bought the Lilly Pulitzer brand. Oxford Industries, Inc. acquired the company in 2010 and has sales toward $100 million.

"Today we celebrate all that Lilly meant to us and come together as Lilly Lovers to honor a true original who has brought together generations through her bright and happy mark on the world," Bradbeer and Beaumont offered in a statement.

Birnbach, for her part, thought it might be appropriate to mourn with some flare.

"I'm looking for a shirt with black flamingos and chimpanzees," she mused.