Lilly Pulitzer, Palm Beach Purveyor of Prep, Dies at 81

Lilly Pulitzer, the designer and socialite known for her loud preppy prints, died Sunday at her home in Florida. She was 81. Pulitzer was an unwitting fashion designer.
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Lilly Pulitzer, the designer and socialite known for her loud preppy prints, died Sunday at her home in Florida. She was 81. Pulitzer was an unwitting fashion designer.
Photo: LilyPulitzer.com

Photo: LilyPulitzer.com

Lilly Pulitzer, the designer and socialite known for her loud preppy prints, died Sunday at her home in Florida. She was 81.

Pulitzer was an unwitting fashion designer.

According to company lore, the label "started with a juice stand" Ms. Pulitzer opened "in the shadow" of her husband's citrus groves in Palm Beach. (According to the New York Times, Lilly McKim, born into a wealthy Long Island family, eloped with Herbert Pulitzer Jr., the publishing heir, after they met on vacation in Palm Beach in 1952 when she was just 21.) To avoid juice stains, Ms. Pulitzer worked the stand in brightly patterned simple shift dresses that she had made, and began selling them alongside the juice. The dresses began outselling the juice; Jacqueline Kennedy, one of Ms. Pulitzer's old classmates at Miss Porter's, was photographed wearing a "Lilly" (as they were called) in Life magazine; and the rest is history.

I hadn't heard of Lilly Pulitzer until I got to college. But when I started at Bowdoin College in Maine, a small liberal arts school with a serious prep school contingent, I was inundated: It seemed that every pretty, blonde, WASP-y Deerfield and Andover lacrosse playing alum had closets full of hot pink and kelly green dresses covered with flamingos and flowers. (Coming from Washington, D.C., and having attended public school, it was safe to say I hadn't encountered Lilly until college.) They wore a uniform that I didn't understand.

To me, Lilly Pulitzer will always be the ultimate in preppy. And in that way, the label will endure long after Pulitzer's passing. College co-eds from Mississippi to Maine will continue to wear her prints to football games and frat parties. (According to WWD, Pulitzer discontinued the line in 1984 but revived it after it was purchased by Sugartown Worldwide in the '90s.)

Designer Chris Benz, whose loud colorful prints certainly owe something to Pulitzer's Palm Beach aesthetic recently posted a photo of Pulitzer on Instagram and wrote "This is my dream design job."

After Lilly Pulitzer updated its Facebook page to announce its founder's passing, thousands of comments from fans remembering their "Lilly" moments amassed within hours. "Heaven will be a more colorful place with Miss Lilly in it," commenter Bridget Mora wrote.