Target sold out of its Lilly Pulitzer for Target togs in record time Sunday — but not just because they’re cute, colorful and cheap. They flew out the stores and blew up Target’s website because the iconic Palm Beach brand is Society’s Tribal Uniform, a style security blanket.
Don’t know what to wear to that pool party at the home of your well-to-do friends? Put on a Lilly. Having a casual breakfast at Testa’s in Palm Beach? Slip on a Lilly. Afraid of being judged at your friend’s private club? Wear Lilly — and you’ll blend right in with those women who are richer than you but just as insecure when it comes to clothes. A colorful Lilly dress or tunic marks a woman as upper-middle-class as certainly as tattoos and piercings identify rebels.
Once, I was invited to a private club in Gulf Stream for dinner. My date suggested I wear Lilly Pulitzer.
I owned no Lilly Pulitzer — and didn’t identify with that pink-and-green tribe anyway — so I wore a black-and-white dress. But I realized that Lilly is not just the most Palm Beach of looks. It is also a code of confidence for anyone who might feel too “other side of the bridge.”
There’s a sociology to style. What tribe do you want to look like you belong to?
Lilly Pulitzer herself was just trying to cover up orange-juice stains she got while working the Pulitzer family fruit stand when she came up with the idea of making the tropical-print shifts in 1959.
Once Jackie Kennedy slipped on a Lilly dress in the ’60s, she helped enforce the code. So did Rockefellers and Whitneys.
Today, Lilly ladies often give each other a wink and a nod.
“It’s the nod to Palm Beach,” says Nancy Noonan, a local real-estate agent and artist who once owned 250 vintage Lilly Pulitzer garments. “I wore a Lilly caftan to Testa’s for brunch Sunday and there were two other ladies there in bright, happy tunics, and they gave me a little nod.”
Noonan spotted several Palm Beach women in the line at Target on Sunday morning.
One mom I know managed to snag dresses for her daughter in every size she’ll need for the next five years. She spent $250 — and figures she saved a thousand dollars by getting the Lilly dresses at Target and not at authentic Lilly locations.
Not all Lilly is “The Lilly,” Noonan says. The original, pre-1984 Pulitzer dresses say “The Lilly” on the tags. Later dresses, made by a licensing company, say “Lilly Pulitzer Inc.” And now there’s “Lilly Pulitzer for Target.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the original Lilly brand had sales of more than $15 million. It now has annual net sales of more than $122 million, according to The New York Times. Lilly Pulitzer died in Palm Beach in 2013 at 81.
Today, the company headquarters is in the very un-Palm-Beachy King of Prussia, Pa. — but the headquarters is painted pink in an homage to Lilly’s belief that a little pink brings cheer and happiness. The folks at Lilly Inc. are clearly savvy retailers. They advertised a “mystery gift with any purchase on April 19 and 20,” trying to lure customers who may have been disappointed if they couldn’t snag a Lilly from Target.
Target has done several promotions with designers in the past few years — but none hit an aspirational nerve quite like Lilly. That’s probably because Lilly is more understandable than, say, Missoni, the high-fashion Italian line that launched Target’s foray into designer lines for the mass market.
Real Lilly shift dresses at lillypulitzer.com cost around $200 — not out of grasp for society wannabes.
Of course, Target’s Lilly shifts cost $38 — until they were marked up for three times that price on eBay.
That’s still a small price to pay to belong to a style tribe.
And it is a tribe, as Noonan will attest.
“Lilly is about being free, casual, comfortable and colorful. You don’t have to dress up a Lilly … the dress does that for you,” she says. “It makes women feel comfortable.”
Unless, perhaps, you’re on a subway in the big city.
Noonan wore a Lilly dress in New York City 20 years ago, “and people looked at me like I had three heads. That wasn’t their uniform.”