Lilly Pulitzer: The Story Behind The Fashion — ‘It All Started With A Juice Stand’

As the launch of Lilly Pulitzer products at Target, called Lilly For Target, is happening, some may be wondering where the idea for the brightly colored prints came from.

Lilly Pulitzer, the woman behind the Lilly Pulitzer fashion line, didn’t dream of becoming a fashion designer. In fact, she had been dubbed the “accidental fashion designer” by the way her clothing line came about.

Lilly was the daughter of a Standard Oil heiress, and eloped into the Pulitzer newspaper family by marrying Peter Pulitzer, the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer, who created the newspaper and prestigious Pulitzer Prizes. In the 1950s, Peter and Lilly decided to spend their time in South Florida, away from the hustle and bustle of New York City, where Peter was cultivating orange trees near Lake Okeechobee.

After suffering from postpartum depression, the doctors urged Lilly to stay busy and get a hobby to ward off the symptoms of isolation. Heeding the doctor’s advice, Lilly decided to open an orange juice stand on the main shopping street of Palm Beach, the luxurious Worth Avenue.

This was the beginning of the Lilly Pulitzer clothing line that fills the closets of women all over the world. While she was squeezing the oranges, the juice would splatter all over her dress. To camouflage the stains, Lilly picked out some inexpensive fabrics and had a seamstress make her several sleeveless work uniforms.

Lilly’s brightly colored dresses started catching the eyes of customers as they made their way down the strip. Soon, they were wanting to purchase them right off of her back. The shift dresses were so popular that Lilly eventually stopped selling orange juice and created a fashion empire.

According to the Washington Post, the Lilly made its debut in 1959 and gained a popularity boost when one of her former classmates Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in Life Magazine sporting a Lilly.

“Jackie wore one of my dresses” — it was made from kitchen curtain material — and people went crazy. They took off like zingo,” she said in an excerpt from Essentially Lilly, A Guide to Colorful Entertaining. “Everybody loved them, and I went into the dress business.”

Despite her success, Lilly never claimed to be a fashion mogul.

“I couldn’t make a fashion stick if I wanted to,” she told the New York Times in a 1965 interview. “Mustards, poison greens and dark colors per se aren’t good. I could sell them to a few women who don’t know any better. But it wouldn’t last. The public wants clear, bright, non-muddy colors. It tells me. I don’t tell them.”

The brand eventually went out of style, and she was forced to file bankruptcy. However, Sugartown Worldwide Inc. later acquired the brand and it was revived in the 90s. Since then, the brand has extended from the simple shift dresses to a line that includes sunglasses, beach accessories, fragrances, tableware, bedding, and even stationery, according to NYCityWoman.

Today, the line is dedicated to carrying on the tropical patterns with original artwork.

“To this day, we design every print and pattern in our print studio. We start each season with a color palette (color is yes, always bright and spill-proof) and develop prints and patterns that bring the brand to life. Our designers sketch, draw, marker, watercolor, and block print every tid-bit of the line. It’s all original artwork, and we make sure to carry on the tradition of hiding LILLY in every print.”

Did you make it out to Target to buy your Lilly Pulitzer items before they sold out?

[Photo via Facebook/Lilly Pulitzer]