Monday, May 31, 2010

LILLY PULITZER, Fifty Years of Palm Beach Preppy Prints

vintage Lilly Pulitzer men's slacks, circa 1970, worn with a Lacoste polo shirt in the Palm Beach manner

1960s Lilly Butterfly Print Skirt
an array of 1960s-1970s Lilly Pulitzer Men's trousers, private collection

Summer is here, and the prospect of barbecues, holidays and relaxation stretches before us. Summer isn't just a season, it is a state of mind. One of the ways we enjoy summer is in the more casual way that we dress. Seersucker, linen, bright and light colours, all look and feel great and help us enjoy the season. What would July and August dressing, or for that matter resort dressing, be without Lilly Pulitzer? Lilly is the Florida designer known for her unmistakable, brightly coloured prints, who this year celebrates the 50 year anniversary of her first designs.

In the label's heyday of the 1960s, her fashions were worn by Jackie Kennedy and members of the Kennedy family, as well as Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. The look said, "Leisure class, preppy, country club, cocktails by the pool." It was establishment, but very funky and slightly eccentric establishment.

Growing up in cold Canada, I never really knew Lilly. When I was in university in the late 1970s, I used to frequent thrift shops. From time to time, I came across trousers in colourful prints with the label, "Lilly Pulitzer, Palm Beach." I had never heard of the designer, but the prints were so whimsical, so original, and so amusing, that I was smitten. At that time, I tried to research the designer but found that the label was out of production. The label in fact ceased in 1984 and was revived in 1992. In the 1980s, to most eyes, the prints looked hopelessly wild and psychedelic as the fashion industry embraced the haute Conservative, haute bourgeois propriety of the Reagans. Nonetheless, I continued to collect these powerful Pulitzers. Then I noticed, almost simultaneously with the revival and renaissance of Pucci fashions and that label, that hipsters and those in the know could be seen wearing vintage Lilly Pulitzers. Eventually, the label was revived and a new generation was introduced to the designs of Pulitzer.

At first glance, a Pulitzer print looks rather bold, especially in a world where so many are in black or beige. But look closely, and you will see that often only one or two colours are strong, and the rest are retiring. The themes of the prints are whimsical and charming. There is always something sophisticated or a certain finesse in the patterns that prevents them from looking comical or juvenile. These are not your typical 1960s wild flower power florals. Most motifs were based on nature and include subjects like pandas, seashells, butterflies, tropical fish, etcetera.
"lilly" signature concealed in the stripes on the zebra's back signature concealed, like camouflage, among the spots of a seashell
a wild, tropical pineapple print
signature in the fur of a panda bear early 1970s print of pandas and bamboo in a typical green and yellow colourway of the period this print was of yellow and aqua; the overprinted areas resulted in the verdant green Lilly Pulitzer fish and shell motif print, perfect for seaside resort wear; signature at edge of the shell
All the prints are discreetly signed. It is hidden, like a treasure to be found, in the design. "Lilly" might be spelled out in the veins of a leaf, or the stems of meadow daisies, or the fur of a panda bear's back. While current Lilly prints are charming, they cannot touch the vintage ones for charm, whimsy, and innovation. Really, I wish that they would periodically re-issue the old ones. Lilly is famous, but not nearly as famous as she deserves to be. It is my hope that there will be more research and documentation of her wonderful work. Porthault, Manuel Canovas, Paule Marrot, and Emilio Pucci prints are wonderful and unmistakable, but nothing says,"Fun in Palm Beach," like Lilly Pulitzer.

For summer or resort, the perfect look for a woman is a Pulitzer skirt and a Lacoste polo shirt, or a simple Pulitzer print shift like Jacqueline Kennedy wore when in Florida (even to church!). For men, the equivalent look is Pulitzer print slacks with a Lacoste polo shirt, worn with or without a tropical weight navy blue blazer.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the label, there will be an exhibition the the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in Palm Beach County from August 3, 2010 until May 31, 2011.

vintage Lilly Pulitzer garment labels


  1. Wow, these are absolutely brilliant in their colours and execution right down to the hidden "lilly" signature. I had never heard of Lilly Pulitzer, however being a Pucci and Marimekko fan I just swooned over these. It is amazing how some vintage designers are now becoming recognised for their sheer brilliance!

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  3. Hi David,
    Thanks for stopping by. I am glad to introduce you to Lilly. Amazingly, there seems to be little awareness of her outside of the U.S., which is a shame. I think that she deserves the reputation that Marimekko or Pucci has. You can't believe how many people ask where to get them when I wear them to a party. I like her as a designer, because she did things for men as well as women. Lotsa fun!

  4. Love that 'state of mind',Square.
    It calls for a party!


  5. They are certainly lots of fun, and my mind is running overtime with the posibilities of using designs such as these. They are so fresh even for today. I would be one of those people asking you where you got them!

  6. i was lucky enough to find an early run of some of the new fabrics that LP's doing that will debut in early 2011. They're great - and some are very non-traditional for LP.