By the time of Mrs. Pulitzer’s death, the story behind the Lilly — that unmistakable shift with plain lines, and palette of fuchsia, lime, chartreuse and orange — had become one of the most celebrated tales in the fashion world. With its elements of whimsy, and a supporting role for first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, it went like this:
Mrs. Pulitzer was the daughter of a Standard Oil heiress and married — eloped, actually — into the Pulitzer newspaper family. She was a well-to-do housewife and mother of three humming along in her comfortable but evidently unsatisfying life in the 1950s when she suffered, unexpectedly, what has been described as a nervous breakdown. A doctor advised her to get a hobby.
She had always been something of an anomaly in the high-class milieu of Palm Beach, with her barefoot strolls down the main shopping boulevards and her practice, while entertaining in her home, of dousing the floor with water to facilitate dancing. In keeping with her unusual tastes, Mrs. Pulitzer chose what might have seemed at the time a curious divertissement: She would peddle the oranges grown in her husband’s citrus groves.
Soon she was running a fruit stand in Palm Beach, an operation that often left her clothing sullied by orange and pink juices. She went to the five-and-dime store, selected a printed fabric that would hide the stains, and asked a seamstress to fashion her a dress.
Mrs. Pulitzer’s customers liked the look — two seams, a few darts, a slit to facilitate the manual labor associated with her job. Sensing a ripe market, Mrs. Pulitzer began selling dresses from her stand along with her fruits and juices.
In a little more time, the dresses became more popular than the rest of her wares, and Mrs. Pulitzer no longer ran a citrus stand, but a fashion enterprise. A key partner was her friend Laura Robbins Clark, a former fashion editor.
The Lilly debuted in 1959. It was conspicuous, comfortable, and conspicuously comfortable, much like the lifestyle of the affluent women the Lilly was often said to represent. Patterns featured a taxonomy of tropical flora and fauna.
In accordance with Mrs. Pulitzer’s reported preferences, the dress went well with bare feet and was lined, in order not to require underwear.
Gaining popularity in the 1960s, the frock received an unexpected boost when Jacqueline Kennedy — Mrs. Pulitzer’s former classmate — appeared in Life magazine clad in a Lilly. The first lady and her daughter, Caroline, once wore matching Lillys. The family’s matriarch, Rose Kennedy, also joined the craze, as did women across the country.
The Lilly proliferated first through the resort class and eventually across the country through dozens of boutiques and sales in department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. Swimsuits, pajamas, handbags, children’s and men’s clothing and home wares followed.