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Tue, Apr 23, 2013
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The accidental designer
by Ong Soh Chin

The news of designer Lilly Pulitzer's death on April 7 sent me on a nostalgic rummage through my wardrobe. Some time ago, when I was going through a phase of buying vintage outfits, her dresses were my favourite acquisitions. I loved their distinctive loud floral prints and simple silhouettes.

The clothes were immensely wearable, especially in Singapore's tropical climate, as they had been created by a woman who lived practically her whole life in sunny Palm Beach, Florida.

Legend has it that when she was asked by industry associates when she would be showing her winter collection, she quipped: "It's always summer somewhere."

She was also a woman who really did not need to work, having first been born into big old money - her mother was the heiress to the Standard Oil fortune - and, later, marrying rich. Her first husband, Herbert "Pete" Pulitzer, whom she wed in 1952, owned hotels and citrus groves and was the grandson of the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize was named.

In 1957, however, after she suffered a bout of severe depression, doctors advised work as a remedy. Stumped, Pulitzer latched onto the natural idea of starting a juice stand, using fruit from her husband's groves. Squeezing fruit was messy work and her dresses would often be splattered with juice, so she decided to design work dresses with colourful prints to mask the stains.

Her customers loved them so much she designed a few more to sell. Quickly, the dresses became more popular than the juices so, helped by her friend, Laura Robbins Clark, a former Harper's Bazaar fashion editor, Pulitzer opened a shop. The rest, as they say, is history.

The sturdy cotton shifts, waistless and easy to move in, were practical and delightful at the same time. Bright pinks and reds coexisted happily with yellows and greens in fantastical trellises of mutant blooms. Lillys, as the dresses were called, were soon seen on the famous socialites in Pulitzer's circle, as well as the fashion folk in Clark's.

Jacqueline Kennedy, who was Pulitzer's boarding school classmate, wore them, as did the other Kennedy women, along with the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys and the Rockefellers.

If Pulitzer's story sounds like a plotline from Mad Men, that is because it could very well be. The popularity of Lillys dovetailed exactly with the societal changes that were happening in 1960s America, especially among women.

In the year Pulitzer had her breakdown, Betty Friedan was conducting research among women who suffered depression and mental illness due to their unhappiness and frustration at being mere housewives.

That research would eventually lead to the publication of Friedan's ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique, which, incidentally, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

When it was published in 1963, it caused a sensation with its pronouncement: "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says, 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home'."

The Feminine Mystique, which made women think of their identities outside of marriage and children, may seem dated and quaint today, but it would be wrong to dismiss the impact it had in its day. Women started to acknowledge what Friedan called "the problem that has no name" and to heed the call to liberate themselves from their domestic prisons, just as Pulitzer's shapeless and loudly coloured dresses were a deliberate antithesis to the corseted and dainty silhouettes of the recent past.

Hers were dresses that eschewed demure sitting-in-a-corner-quietly behaviour. They were shamelessly exuberant and unafraid to make their presence felt.

And they were made of mighty stern stuff. Many vintage Lillys have stood the test of time and can be found in mint or nearly new condition largely, I suspect, because of the durable, no-nonsense cotton fabric they are made from.

Pulitzer herself would eventually divorce her husband, without warning, in 1969. No reason was given, although she did name a line of men's nightshirts "Sneaky Petes". She then married a Cuban exile named Enrique Rousseau.

I like to imagine that Pulitzer was finally enjoying the freedom of being a woman of her own making - independent of her family fortune and her husband, and hugely successful in a career she never imagined she would have as a Palm Beach housewife who dropped out of college to get married. She had freed herself from the Feminine Mystique.

Today, of course, women face many "mystiques", chief of which is how to balance career and family. We now have more choices than women in the 1960s. With them come more challenges.

At the core, however, our battle remains the same. We want the freedom and the right to be happy, strong and recognised, just like a Lilly.

sohchin@sph.com.sg


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