Clumsy Girls Unite: The Fascinating Story Behind the Lilly Pulitzer Brand

Turning spills into a fashion empire since 1959.

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

Say the words "Lilly Pulitzer" to any woman and you know she's immediately picturing a super-bright, over-the-top colorful, preppy-chic beach vibe. But did you know that the brand's whole aesthetic came about because Pulitzer herself kept staining her clothes with fruit juice?

Lilly Pulitzer, a New York-born socialite who ran in the same circles as the Kennedys, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts, enjoyed a lavish life, but she was also a free spirit, and in 1950 she eloped with her soon-to-be husband Peter Pulitzer to Palm Beach. (At the time, this was a definite no-no in their proper families and social circles.) Another no-no? They decided to live in Palm Beach—year-round. As a vacation spot for the elite, this was unheard of. But, in the words of Pulitzer, "YOLO.*"

*exaggeration

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Fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer attends a poolside party in Palm Beach, Florida.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In Florida, the Pulitzers threw over-the-top parties that everyone was invited to, and her door was always open. In the interest of having her own business to pour her energy into, Pulitzer later opened a juice stand using the fruit from her husband's citrus groves. It was a hit, but squeezing all those oranges, lemons, limes, and pink grapefruit meant a ton of stains on her pristine clothing. This led to her lightbulb moment: She decided to design a sleeveless shift dress made of bright fabric (in orange, yellow, and green hues) to hide the stains.

Soon, customers were asking for dresses of their own—and in 1959, Pulitzer became the president of her own company, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc. She called the dresses "Lillys" and they became the go-to uniform for resort-goers who needed something to wear that would transition from poolside lounging to dinners on a yacht. The fact that they were lightweight and easy to pack was a big plus, too. Basically, if you were a Person to Know in Palm Beach (and beyond) in the '60s and '70s, you were wearing Lilly Pulitzer.

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Original collection rollout, circa 1960

(Image credit: Courtesy Lilly Pulitzer)

After a brief hiatus (following Pulitzer closing down her company in 1984), Sugartown Worldwide, Inc. (now Oxford Industries) contacted Pulitzer in 1993 in hopes to revive the brand—and she agreed. The company ran the logistics, while Pulitzer served as a creative consultant who approved new designs and collections. Now, the bright colors and prints live on (which are all hand-painted, FYI.) Clumsy girls everywhere, just think: This could be your legacy.

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(Image credit: Design by Dana Tepper)

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Samantha Leal is the Deputy Editor at Well+Good, where she spends most of her day thinking of new ideas across platforms, bringing on new writers, overseeing the day-to-day of the website, and working with the awesome team to produce the best stories and packages. Before W+G, she was the Senior Web Editor for Marie Claire and the Deputy Editor for Latina.com, with bylines all over the internet. Graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University with a minor in African history, she’s written everything from travel guides to political op-eds to wine explainers (currently enrolled in the WSET program) to celebrity profiles. Find her online pretty much everywhere @samanthajoleal.