Colorful Memories of Lilly Pulitzer

When Lilly Pulitzer died April 7, 2013, colorful and flowery memories were sparked in women of all ages: women who wore the original Lilly dresses in the 1960s, their daughters who so proudly wore miniature versions of the cotton shifts, and a whole new generation of Lilly lovers from the 1990s when Lillys made a splashing comeback, revived by Sugartown Worldwide. Last year, the company sold more than $122 million in Lilly designs.

The bright motifs on simple shifts have been worn by Jacqueline Kennedy and other celebrities but originally, they were standard fare for young women up and down the East Coast, at country clubs, fraternity parties and beach weekends during the decade after Ms. Pulitzer began selling them from a Palm Beach juice stand for $22 in 1959. The romantic story of her elopement with publishing heir Peter Pulitzer, unraveling of their marriage and the details of her second marriage can be seen in obituaries such as the one published in the Sun Sentinel.

But it is the memories of her fans and diehard dress wearers that tell the real stories – and there are plenty of them that have been posted. Her Legacy.com Guest Book is full of memories:

"The first day I met Lilly was the first day of working for her. She flew into the factory in Miami wearing a blue dashiki Lilly print shirt, white pants, daisy sandals, her hair tied up in a scarf and a huge Aquamarine ring on her finger. She had brought in a big basket of food she had prepared for our lunch. We all sat around a crowded desk in one of the offices and I can still hear her hearty, heartfelt laugh." ~ Ann S, Greensboro, North Carolina 

"I was a teen when I saw Jackie Kennedy in a lovely Lilly Pulitzer dress, I loved it. The dress stayed in my memory and when I became a working young lady during my University years, I could finally buy a Lilly Pulitzer dress. I felt so special. That is what Lilly Pulitzer did with her clothes, she made women feel part of a special world." ~ marcella h., Manhattan Beach, California

"My Lilly dresses and skirts were great friends and I can remember when I wore them and who I twirled on the dance floor with. Thank you Lilly for brightening the world with your beautiful designs." ~ Nancy Kolar, Troy, Michigan

More memories were shared on a special tribute site, where there are countless stories of dresses handed down from grandmother to mother to granddaughter, annual mother-daughter and grandmother-daughter shopping trips to pick out the latest Lilly and even of men wearing pants to match their wives' shifts.

"To me, Lilly means summer and a mother's love," one woman wrote. Another said, "Only decked in Lilly Pulitzer is it OK to have a Mommy-and-Me outfit when you are in your 30s and your mother is in her 50s." And echoing sentiments of many, another wrote: "My mother is my role model and so is Lilly Pulitzer!"

And another said, "I am just so thankful Lilly was here to make every girl feel beautiful and special."

While Ms. Pulitzer was raising three children of her own (Liza, Minnie and Peter) her dresses became an enduring, tangible bond – full of color and fashion and Southern style – between moms and little girls, some of whom write now clamoring for larger sizes, longer skirts and sleeves.

The dresses were a clear harbinger of spring and were shown off as bridesmaids' dresses and in trousseaus. One woman wrote that she and her husband "eloped themselves" in Lilly. The dresses were worn for 16th birthdays and – as a good luck charm – to first interviews, on first dates, and one woman even opened her medical practice while wearing a Lilly. Another said driving by the Pulitzer house – and taking a deep breath – got her through chemotherapy for breast cancer. The designer and her dresses motivated weight loss, inspired confidence and chased away the blues: "Whenever I slip into a melancholy disposition, all I have to do is sneak a look at Lilly and it can cheer me up no matter what!"

An 11-year-old who won a national swim meet made sure to have on her Lilly for the photo. One woman wrote that she has about 500 pieces of Lilly clothing and cherishes each one.

Another wrote, "Lillys were my young and beautiful mother's uniform. In the '60s and early '70s we lived in Vero and then Fort Lauderdale, but mostly shopped for clothes in Palm Beach. We'd go to the Worth Avenue store to buy her Lillys, have a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, and sometimes say hi to Lilly herself. In 1971 my 39-year-old mother died unexpectedly of melanoma. We buried her in her in one of her many Lillys."

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, one Lilly wearer wrote: "What a tremendous loss for the world. But a gain for the angels. Angels in colorful, whimsical prints from now on!"

 

Written by Susan Soper. Soper is the author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has been a reporter with Newsday, writer for CNN, and Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."