Fashion Icon Lilly Pulitzer's Legacy Of Color

In the 1960s and '70s, Lilly Pulitzer's floral shift dresses — in splashy combinations like hot pink and lime — became the de-facto uniform for jetsetters who used "summer" as a verb. Pulitzer died Sunday at her home in Florida. She was 81. All Things Considered host Audie Cornish talks with fashion writer Robin Givhan about her legacy.

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It's always summer somewhere, as fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer used to say, and she made it her business to design for it. In the 1960s and '70s, Lilly Pulitzer's floral shift dresses - in splashy combinations like hot pink and lime - became the de facto uniform for the jet set who used summer as a verb. When her boarding school classmate Jacqueline Kennedy turned up in one of Pulitzer's creations while on vacation, legions of women clamored for one of their own.

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Lilly Pulitzer died yesterday at her home in Florida at age 81. Her given name was Lilly Lee McKim, and she was born of wealth. Her mother was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. She married into the Pulitzer publishing family in 1952 and became a social register favorite in Palm Beach. It was there that she worked at a juice stand, supplied by her first husband's orange groves. The famous shift dress was reportedly born out of necessity, as Pulitzer needed a cute uniform that would hide the inevitable juice stains. Soon, she was selling more dresses than juice.

Here to talk more about her legacy is Robin Givhan, fashion writer and contributor to The Washington Post. Welcome, Robin.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, Lily Pulitzer never trained as a designer, and yet, the Lilly shift dress just became so enormously popular. What did it look like? What made it special?

GIVHAN: Imagine if you were 5 years old and you were drawing a dress for your paper doll, that's pretty much what it looked like. It was very simple, very simple lines, pretty much anyone could wear it. But what was really distinctive about it was that it was stitched out of this very easy cotton in the most riotous colors and crazy patterns, things that had tropical fruit and flowers and sailboats and pandas and just all kinds of whacky, whacky images, and it was meant to be fun. They were meant to be play dresses for adults.

CORNISH: Who were the kinds of women who were drawn to the style?

GIVHAN: Well, I think it was a combination of Lilly Pulitzer's friends who shared her background, who either summered in Palm Beach or lived in Palm Beach.

CORNISH: And we're talking kind of Rockefeller-, Vanderbilt-type names here.

GIVHAN: We're talking names that are on buildings. Yes, we're talking very wealthy women. I think there were also women who aspired to sort of mimic their style. This was the period of Jackie Kennedy when a lot of women were trying to copy the kinds of clothes that she wore. And then there was also this aspect of women who had the money and the style to wear anything that they wanted to and loved the idea that they were wearing these really inexpensive somewhat cheesy, silly little dresses.

CORNISH: And I guess for the rest of us, for the rest of women, it's like if you can't be on Martha's Vineyard, you at least can dress like it.

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GIVHAN: You can at least dress like you're headed to Martha's Vineyard even if you're just headed to, you know, the community pool.

CORNISH: And it seems like she's one of those designers who embodies the lifestyle image of the brand, so it's not just about the dress, but she actually comes off as the kind of woman who would wear such a dress.

GIVHAN: Yeah. You know, designers now talk a lot about selling a lifestyle and not just selling clothes, but she was really early in that philosophy. I mean, she - the dress came out of her own need, this idea that she needed something that she could use when she was selling her orange juice by the side of the road, which is a little bit like selling lemonade on Madison Avenue. And so she really led the kind of life where she incorporated this dress.

CORNISH: Robin Givhan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GIVHAN: My pleasure.

CORNISH: Robin Givhan, fashion writer and contributor to The Washington Post. She spoke to us about Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau. The fashion designer died Sunday at age 81.

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