Lilly Pulitzer’s Untold Story

March 05, 2013 | by —CATHERINE SABINO | Homepage


Kathryn Livingston is the former executive editor of Town & Country and a long-time chronicler of the beau monde. In her new book, LILLY: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour, and the Birth of a Fashion Legend (Wiley, $25.95), she writes about the woman whose dresses became the default casual wear for America’s preppy. A sometimes rebellious daughter of wealth and privilege who dropped out of finishing school to become a nurse's aide in Appalachia, Pulitzer was a working mother at a time when mothers, especially fabulously rich ones, didn't work. Interestingly enough, the notoriously private fashion legend began her career by opening an orange juice stand in the heart of one of America's most luxe enclaves. This book chronicles her remarkable story.

What prompted you to write this book? 
KATHRYN LIVINGSTON: What I hoped to do next was a biography of an exemplary American woman who embodied what’s at the top of the American Dream, but whose private ups and downs through several eras were also reflective of modern American social history. In the fickle world of fashion, she is one of the very few who has been able to make a smashing comeback. While she is as colorful as her merrily printed styles for men, women, and children, there has never before been a published biography of her.

Where does Lilly live today? 
KL: In Palm Beach, Florida. Now in her early eighties, she pretty much shuns the limelight. A family-centered woman, she is often surrounded by her visiting children, their spouses, or even ex-spouses, plus Lilly’s eight grandchildren and sister. Her nine-bedroom house is every bit as unique as she is: A bold turquoise front door leads through a terra-cotta foyer into a bright yellow living room the size of a ballroom, filled with colorfully upholstered, pillow-strewn sofas and easy chairs, eccentric mementos, and elegant antiques.  

Have younger women embraced the Lilly Pulitzer line the way that they did Diane von Furstenberg’s classic wrap dress a number of years back?
KL: Absolutely. It has been embraced by a whole new generation of young women, men, and children. The brand, which started out as a Palm Beach snob uniform in the ’60s and became a much-copied fashion craze across the U.S, is now considered an American classic. 

How has resort style changed since you were an editor at Town & Country
KL: Amazingly, not much. It’s still civilized barefoot ease, casual classics. The effortless chic of a hibiscus-bright cable-knit sweater casually tossed over the shoulders of a pastel-hued polo shirt worn with crisp white cotton pants and sandals for women and loafers for men is still a perfect seaside club uniform by day in Southampton or Palm Beach. Lilly’s trademark gold gypsy hoop earrings are as popular today as when she originally wore them when she launched her business. Prints are big in fashion once more. So in a sense, fashion has caught up with Lilly.

Lilly Pulitzer is emblematic of a certain era’s wasp style. How would you describe wasp style today?    
KL: Low-key but up-to-date. Never flashy. Never looking like you’re trying too hard. Being aware of trends but knowingly sifting out the latest as to what is appropriate for an occasion, what is practical for a specific task. Clean-cut and fresh-scrubbed. Sporty and seemingly effortless. Uncluttered silhouettes, no superfluous ruffles. Good jewelry but not too much of it. Carefully put together but carried off with an air of nonchalance. This style’s assured stance starts in prep school, with mastered traditions, dress codes, awareness of rules. It’s a style acquired by osmosis [that] relies on the tried-and-true: Oxford cloth shirts, khaki pants, navy blazers, cashmere sweaters and shawls, well-cut suits in fine natural fabrics.

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