The roots of American style: Lilly Pulitzer and Bill Blass

by Maje Pérez-Ramos

“No woman can be well dressed unless she is comfortable in what she is wearing.”

– Bill Blass

Years before the now quintessential designers of America became well-known, two creators formulated the three rules of american fashion as we know it: elegance, practicality and timelessness. 

Lilly Pulitzer and Bill Blass were the parents, if you wish, of American style. Not only they established the aesthetics on which the following generations of designers thrived, they also developed a new business model for the industry there. While Pulitzer gave the American answer to the joyful and glamourous Pucci prints, Bill Blass set the path for the minimalism that future designers, such as Calvin Klein would pursue to this day. Actually,  it’s easy to envision some of Bill Blass’s SS 2000 RTW collection looks (the last as creative director of his homonymous brand), worn by Kendall Jenner or some other current celebrity (see gallery image). 

The colorful empire of Lilly Pulitzer began by a happy accident back in 1959. According to the current brand website, “Lilly, a stylish Palm Beach hostess and socialite whose husband Peter Pulitzer owned several Florida citrus groves, needed a project of her own. With Peter’s produce, she opened a juice stand on Via Mizner, just off Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. Lilly Pulitzer’s business was a hit, but squeezing oranges, lemons, limes, and pink grapefruit made a mess of her clothes. Realizing that she needed a juice stand uniform, Lilly asked her dressmaker to design a dress that would camouflage the stains. The result? A comfortable sleeveless shift dress made of bright, colorful printed cotton in pink, green, yellow and orange. Although her customers liked Lilly’s juice, they loved her shift dresses. Soon Lilly was selling more shift dresses than juice, so she decided to stop squeezing and focus on designing and selling her Lillys. Lilly Pulitzer became a fashion sensation and a creator of authentic American resort wear as we know it”. The original company closed-down in 1983 but was revived in 1993 as a mid-price brand in the lines of Victoria’s Secret, although still pays homage to the cheery prints that gave it fame.                        

According to the legacy section on Bill Blass, “he is one of twenty-eight American designers of distinction featured on Seventh Avenue’s Fashion Walk Of Fame, titled the hardest working man on Seventh Avenue”. The web goes on to say thatBill Blass studied fashion at Parsons School of Design and he could have easily made a long, lucrative career out of being an anonymous back-room designer, but that wasn’t enough for him. Bill eventually packed up his sketchpad and moved to New York with a dream. Instead of creating for other labels, he wanted to build his own fashion house. He was the first American designer to brand himself, using his own name and pulling back the workroom curtain at a time when the profession had yet to be glamorized. The NYC elite had never seen anything like it. Stylish, practical and timeless. His clothes were worn by a who’s who list of the City’s high-profile socialites.” Thanks to the then-revolutionary license system, Blass’s brand soon expanded to swimwear luggage, accesories, perfume and even chocolates. After his retirement in 2000 the brand was sold and purchased several times and many designers have tried (with no luck so far) to bring back the glory days. Of that stylish fashion empire, everything that is left today is a rather dull online brand of shoes and bags.

It’s worth mentioning, also, that American fashion has shifted in the latest years: some designers have succumbed (to a certain degree) to the ugliness exravaganza, such as Michael Kors or Tommy HIlfiger. Some fashion houses are wisely adapting the no-nonsense sophistication rule to the new times (Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera); finally, Ralph Lauren stands alone, through thick and thin, as champion for the classic american, old-world glamorous style.

Image: Ladies in Palm Beach in their Lilly Pulitzer dresses. Photo by Slim Aarons, from the book A privileged life, by Susanna Salk (Assouline, 2007)

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