Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reggie, Lilly, Lilly, Boy*

There is rather a lot of Lilly Pulitzer to be seen on the island of Nantucket during the peak summer months.  It's everywhere.  When walking up the cobblestones of Main Street, in town, one sees armies of women, teenagers, children, and men, all sporting some Lilly.  There's a Lilly shop on the island that is a devotee's paradise, as it carries the complete line of Lilly for both women and men.  Everywhere I turn, I see someone dressed in Lilly.  And they come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from petite preteens to wide-bottomed gals in their sixties.  It's like a human parade of Easter baskets, all pink and green, and yellow and blue.  It is very summery, and mostly pretty.

Vintage Lilly Pulitzer fabric

And it would have driven Mummy Darling crazy.

MD was not a fan of Lilly.  In fact, she said she'd rather die than own any.  Couldn't stand it.  Hated it.  Always did and always would.  And that's because, in the 1960s, she was on the other, opposing team.  MD always considered herself to be something of a rebel.  She was much too cool to wear Lilly, which she dismissed as being the stuff of simpering blondes driving country-club station wagons.  Prissy.  Not her thing at all.  She considered herself to be a sophisticated, worldly brunette, and was proud of it.  And women like MD instead wore Marimekko, from the design house based in Finland, known for its boldly colored, highly graphic fabrics.

Lilly Pulitzer in her original shop in Palm Beach
Image courtesy of
The Preppy Princess

MD owned half a dozen Marimekko shifts in the late 1960s, that she treasured and wore in rotation during the summer, and she also had Marimekko scarves and tea towels, and even sheets.  She liked the bright colors and patterns of Marimekko, which she thought suited her to a tee.  Besides, there was something almost radical about wearing Marimekko at the time.  It was kicky and "now" and was from über-cool Scandinavia, like the furniture that was gradually replacing the antiques in our living room, that MD had inherited from her grandparents.

Vintage marimekko from the 1960s
Image courtesy of marimekko

But when Reggie was a boy in the 1960s he wanted MD to be a Lilly-wearing mother, like his friends' mothers who had blonde bouffant Kennedy hair, wore Lilly shifts and golfing skirts, and carried Bermuda bags.  He wanted to have a girlier mother, who would say "gosh" instead of "goddamit" and who didn't snort in disgust at the very idea of needlepoint pillows or Pappagallo flats.  When Reggie would ask MD "Why can't you be like the other mothers and wear those pretty dresses?" she'd say "Over my dead body!  I can't stand that Lilly Putziger crap!" which is how she referred to the designer's clothes.

Durie Desloge and Wendy Vanderbilt in Lilly, in 1964
Photographed by Slim Aarons

But only a year or two later, much to MD's indignation, she found that Lilly Pulitzer had been engaged to supply new school uniforms at the National Cathedral School for Girls, where my sister Hermione was a student.  And MD had to buy a set for her.  She didn't have a choice in the matter.  I still remember her fuming, "I can't believe it!  I said I'd never buy any of that Lilly Putziger crap, and now I have to!"

Slim Aarons' photographs of Lilly and her Palm Beach followers,
from Aarons' book 
Once Upon A Time

It was not until I went to Saint Grottlesex in the early 1970s that I thought about Lilly again.  Even though there weren't all that many girls at the school in those days (it had only just gone co-ed), a lot of them wore Lilly dresses and skirts, just like their mothers.  And they carried Lilly bags, too, and some of them even had Lilly patchwork quilts in their off-limits rooms.  It was actually kind of weird to see these teenage girls wearing what appeared to Reggie as rather matronly dresses in pretty pastels, when his own sisters were in the full throes of hippiedom.  But there was something quite attractive about it, too, and Reggie liked it.  And it wasn't just the girls at Saint Grottlesex who wore Lilly.  Quite a few of the boys did, too.  A number of Reggie's male friends at the school had shorts and long pants from Lilly, and swim trunks, as well.  And they looked really good in them.

Lilly-wearing Palm Beach residents, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Leas
Likely photographed by Slim Aarons
Image courtesy of
Dwellers Without Decorators

One year I stayed at Saint Grottlesex a couple of days beyond the usual departure date for the summer break, and I had the dormitory where I lived to myself.  While there, I came across a pair of Lilly shorts that one of the boys had left behind.  They were orange, with lions printed on them, and I was delighted to find that they fit me perfectly.  But I also remember feeling somewhat strange when I put them on, as if I was slipping my feet into the forbidden.  I knew what MD thought about Lilly, yet I was attracted to it.  Not just for the way it looked, all summery and Palm Beachy, but also for the pretty and attractive people I knew who wore it.  MD be damned, I thought, as I looked at myself in the mirror.  I'm going to keep these shorts.

Needless to say, after returning home, I was met with a snort of derision when I came downstairs one morning wearing my Lilly shorts. "Where did you get those ridiculous shorts?" MD asked me.  I told her, and she rolled her eyes and said that it was a good thing I'd paid nothing for them, since that was all they were worth.  I defiantly wore them almost every day until I left shortly thereafter to attend Colorado Outward Bound.  But I was perplexed, when I returned home at the end of the month-long program, that I couldn't find the shorts in my room.  And then I was incensed, when I learned that MD had donated them, along with my beloved childhood Lego collection, to a summer jumble sale at our parish church.  "You're too old for that stuff!" was MD's justification when I confronted her with her misdeed.  Not only was she unrepentant, but she categorically refused to replace the shorts (or the Leggo).  "Forget it!" she said.

My Lilly swim trunks

And I pretty much did, until the mid 1990s, when I saw a pair of Lilly swim trunks in the window of a store in Manhattan.  And I bought them, and wore them on Fire Island Pines, where the standard-issue bathing suit at the time was a far racier Speedo, or "banana hammock," as my preppy girlfriends called them, wrinkling their noses.  But I must admit, Reggie felt a bit of an imposter wearing his pink-and-green Lilly on the beach that summer, and the suit quickly found its way to the back of the drawer, never to be worn again.  I still have it, though.

A close-up of my trunks, showing the
"Lilly" that appears in all of her prints

Fast forward, to today on Nantucket.  

Last weekend, when our friends George Pinckney and Ford Waring were visiting us, we went into the Lilly shop in town to look around.  Neither George nor Ford, both of whom are old-line WASP southerners, are strangers to Lilly.  In fact, George once had a pair of Lilly shorts that he wore in the mid-1980s that I coveted and that he no longer owns, much to his regret.  We learned in the store that Lilly has discontinued, or at least drastically reduced, its menswear offerings, and what little they had left was aggressively marked down for an end-of-summer sale.

Boy's Lilly trunks, bought on Nantucket last summer

George walked out of the store with a colorful pair of trousers (seen in the center photograph, below) that he happily bought at a fraction of their original marked price.  Even though there was clothing there that fit me, I can't bring myself to wear today's Lilly, even ironically.  I guess that MD's influence over me remains strong, even from beyond the crematorium.

Current Lilly menswear offerings
Image courtesy of New York Magazine

But that doesn't apply to all Lilly.  I am okay with owning and wearing vintage Lilly, particularly if it's from the 1960s and 1970s, which is what I consider to be Lilly's heyday.  And, coincidentally, that's exactly what we found not more than a few minutes later while strolling through the streets of Nantucket.

Well, actually, it found us.  Here's how: As the four of us walked by a white clapboard building in town, a pretty young blonde standing by the doorway called out, "Hey, you guys!"  Once she got our attention she said, "We've got vintage Lilly inside, come check it out!"  I suppose the sight of us, all wearing some combination of Lacostes, khakis, madras, ribbon belts, white bucks, and Gucci loafers--plus George's shopping bag from the Lilly store, and Ford's and Boy's bags from other expected shops--just might have signaled to her that we were likely customers.  For it turned out she was a barker for a trunk show of vintage designer and couture clothing that Classic Collections, a Palm Beach dealer, had for sale inside.

Boy, in his vintage Lilly jacket
Photograph by Reggie Darling

Tucked away among the rooms of women's clothing and accessories was a yard-wide rack of men's Lilly sport jackets from the 1960s through 1980s for sale.  Both Ford and Boy tried them on, but only one of them fit Boy.  Like a glove.  Supposedly dating from the 1970s, the jacket is made out of a Lilly fabric of green, yellow, blue, and white in a fish-and-seashell design.  The buttons and label have Lilly's classic menswear lion-head logo from that era.

And I had to buy it for Boy as a very early birthday present.  You would have, too, if you had seen the look on his face when he tried it on and saw himself in the mirror . . .

* With apologies to John Singer Sargent


  1. Love Boy's early Lilly jacket-very spiffy and sporting there. I am with team MD-Marimekko all the way. Isn't it funny how we perceive our parents-your story sounds very similar to my brother's opins about his M. wardrobe, even more so though how MD's style follows you-which I think is a good thing. LOVE THIS POST,Reggie darling.

  2. I'm rolling over and I'm not even in my grave!

  3. Love the Slim Arrons' photos. I spent a great deal of my younger years pouring through A Wonderful Life. You are spot on about the vintage Lilly. Great post.

  4. Here's where the sartorially understated (and even that is overstatement) confesses to have once fallen similarly under the Lilly spell, with a pair of orange and fuchsia jeans from the Lilly store, since long gone, in Northeast Harbor. However, it was the seventies, and politically and socially I was a bit repelled by the Lilly world (I'm with MD all the way on this one), and besides, practically got laughed off the streets of our little village by my peers. But if that's where one's aspirations are, then bring on the irony. Personally given my choice between the Lilly Jeans and my then 29 inch waist, I'll take the waist. (Oh, okay, I do think there's still an old Lilly tie hanging in my closet...and I rather like it).

  5. Even more luscious than the Lilly attire during the 60's -70's were those fabulous scarfs draped across the forehead and tied behind the neck. Lilly is fun and somewhat whimsical, which is what makes it smashing especially during the summer months. Only in small amounts, though please. Lilly from head to toe is a bit nauseating at best.

  6. I'm dismayed at the thought of seeing so much Lilly whilst on vacation, but it's wonderful that you took it as an opportunity to reminisce about days gone by. Lilly has decidedly gone with a lower price point to appeal to a larger crowd, which is fine for the bottom line, but I don't know anyone who wears it now. Most of it is quite frumpy - it takes a keen eye to distinguish the vintage from the current prints - only a few can tell the difference, so have fun picking them out!

  7. One of my best friends wore it so well and I always wanted a piece of Lilly but growing up one of seven, my closest and next best thing were to to make my own skirts and use wonderful trims for them. I love how Lilly got her start and that the company is still going strong.
    Just last week in Maine, I spotted a wonderful chap wearing an old guard pair of bermuda shorts and a straw boater with all sorts of fun flowers.
    As the old adage says, "If the shoe fits, wear it!"
    I think one must be slightly extroverted to wear it, no shrinking violets clad in Lilly. One must be witty, loud and a wee bit obnoxious, so perhaps that is your very own MD's take.
    I rather like your Mom's affinity and affection for the rebel for the cut of another cloth.

  8. Well, it is what it is and what it is is totally American East Coast. If you really want to turn heads (and not neccesarily in a positive way), imagine wearing a Lilly bathing suit on the beach at St. Tropez, or Lilly pants while walking down the street in Capri- or Santa Barbara for that matter. America has been the breeding ground for so many fashions that have swept the world to such an extent that it's hard to remember where they originated. The taste for Lilly, however, was and remains rigidly regional.

    A tad bit of social history prompted by your (as usual) wonderful post- Mrs. Donald Leas was the former Fernanda Wanamaker, the department store heiress. Her daughter's debutante party in Southampton in the 1960's resulted in the trashing of an enormous house on the beach that had been rented to house younger male guests. It was quite a scandal at the time and was widely publicized as an example of "the sorry state of priveleged youth of today" and of the general decay of morals, standards,etc, which is probably exactly what it was.The Leas actual Southampton house has, I believe, very recently been purchased by another fashion icon, Tory Burch.

    Class dismissed!

  9. A perfectly delightful post, always! And I thought "Boy" looked splendid in the jacket. Glad you gifted will both enjoy this jacket on occasion, for years to come.

  10. My mother also wore Marimekko. Surprise:). I love Boy's jacket - he looks fabulous.

  11. My father-in-law had wonderful Lilly blazers made in the 60s & 70s for the LYC Race Committee, we think they went to the big jumble sale in the sky as well.

    I begged for "Bloomies" items, when I was a kidlet and my mother said I could have them when Bloomingdales paid me to advertise for them, rather than the other way around.

  12. Prior to the resurgence of Lilly' men's in 2006ish, I become friends with the owner of the DC market stores, Tickled Pink, who graciously offered to sell me the by the yard fabric to make my own bespoke lilly pants.

    After looking into what that cost I resigned to eBay right around the time the Men's collection was re-introduced and i grabbed a pair of classically Lilly pink and green pants in the "fried catfish" print.

    However, today, I think the vintage Lilly is the way to go. Not only is the fabric sturdier, but the prints more old school style.

    That being said, when ordering the pants from eBay, you need to take heed the legs have slight flair and will need to be tapered and tailored by a professional.

  13. I have never understood all the fuss about Lilly's things, but if they
    MUST be worn, their place is poolside, or patio or terrace. In other
    words the Great Outdoors, where those garish colours and aggressive
    patterns won't wreck the studied calm of my own living room (or anyone
    else's for that matter).

  14. Mother Darling knew best.

    (And I would add, compared to the current incarnation of Lilly, Steven Stolman's "upholstery dresses" of a decade or so ago were saint Laurent.)

  15. I don't know why MD was so outraged by the Lilly uniforms for NCS. Thinking back, they were attractive shirtwaists in solid bold, pastel colors (is that an oxymoron?) I know she objected to the price, and got around the problem by buying one or two dresses, and having her wizard seamstress copy them. I was humiliated to have "homemade" clothing. I wanted the proper label. Nowadays I would kill to have access to custom handmade clothing...


    PS Nice legs on that Boy!

  16. Dear Reggie, my Mother as well refused to wear Lilly, and would not allow me to either. I could not wait to buy my own. Now as an adult I do own Lilly pieces, but hardly ever wear them. Oh well, the grass is always greener etc, etc. By the way , I love Boy in his new jacket, and I enjoy your blog. Jane

  17. Reggie, what a divine post, I love the Marimekko / Lilly split, that is a perfect description of what I was exposed to as well. There is even a bit of a schizophrenic hangover, currently the pooch sleeps on an enormous bed made of the blue Marimekko poppy pattern (I never can remember the name of that pattern), with yours truly hovering nearby in a Lilly shirt.

    You have done just a marvelous job synthesizing an era's style, distilled down to those two iconic names. And they are both more popular than ever it seems, with both having items mass produced and licensed for all manner of things.

    The hoo-hah over the NCS uniforms is fascinating, it is difficult to imagine Lilly designing one, we might even have sided with MD on this issue. I would kill to see a photo of one. Do any such images exist, even in Yearbook form? How does Hermione respond to groveling?

    Boy looks tres chic, he definitely dresses up the jacket. The mens' line always seems to be hovering just this side of John Daly's Loudmouth Golf brand.

    Love, love, love this post, and shall have to send our readers this way.

  18. Handsome is as handsome does: great jacket and gams.

  19. Some of you are too young to remember but Magnus is was an East Coast thing. If you lived in Florida in the middle of the summer, believe me a Lilly shift was not only cute, it was a necessity. In those days women didn't go around half naked in the summer like they do today and these were a godsend. You always were appropriately dressed in the summer if you wore a Lilly. Marimeko was not my style, you had to be a certain type of person, probably more sophisticated and tall. I don't know, I just was not it. Later on, we wore those Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses that made you look fantastic and feel so sexy. Guys loved them.

    My father always sported a pair of Lilly's to the member/guest at the club. That was the 60's Fairfield County. He was always a hit and he knew it.

    Nowadays only my granddaughter wears Lillys in the summer, she looks awfully cute. And my Westie once had a collar and leash...she looked awfully cute too. We don't do that kind of stuff anymore. Been there done that, but it was fun while it lasted!

  20. Reggie Darling,

    You are wonderful!

  21. LA and LPC: Yes, marimekko was marvelous and is enjoying a resurgence apparently.

    Muffy Aldrich: Thank you, I have been enjoying your blog, too.

    Sister: I figured as much!

    DED: Reggie hasn't sported a 29 inch waist since middle school. I dream of returning to one in the low 30s.

    teaorwine: Absolutely, a little Lilly goes a long way. Head to toe can be assaultive, although we did see one old dame in matching bright orange pants and shirt that we loved. Must've been in her 80s, ramrod straight posture, great figure, big straw hat, huge sunglasses. A knock out!

    gourmetmom: Actually it wasn't unpleasant to see all the Lilly while on Nantucket, but rather more of an interest anthropologically. The tribe was wearing its feathers of choice.

    PVE: I have since come to appreciate MD's world view and choices (and pronouncements) in a way that I couldn't comprehend at the time. She was a piece of work, and definitely marched to her own drumbeat, or so she thought. The apple didn't really fall all that far from the tree.

    Magnus: I am always excited to see your byline as I know I am in for a treat. Thanks for the lesson in who this divine lady was.

    Patsy and Lindaraxa: Reggie's father became a bit of a peacock in his sixties and started wearing wild patchwork madras GTH trousers and jackets, the loudness of which Reggie found astonishing. Father Darling was quite proud of his sartorial blossoming. Never got around to Lilly, though. But then, that was when she was on hiatus.

    DAM: Yes, the cut of the vintage (not to mention the current offerings) is not exactly flattering, and usually needs adjusting.

    Toby: Yes, it's best to wear such fripperies in sunny environs when the weather is warm or tropical, set off by a tan. Doesn't cut it in Duluth in January.

    Ancient: Welcome back! I first saw the Stolman dresses you speak of 10 years ago at a garden party where my friend Libby Tallmadge was wearing one. Divine. Boy was so impressed that he went to the (then) shop on the UES and bought a pair of orange Chinoiserie patterned pants from the men's collection.

    Hermione: Interesting how one's perspectives change, isn't it?

    Jane: Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is interesting that forbidden fruit sometimes loses a bit of its allure when it (finally) becomes available . . .

    Preppy Princess: Thank you for your comment, Reggie blushes. And thank you for being such a useful font of information for when I was researching this piece. Dear Readers -- please be sure to explore the link to her blog within my story.

    Voicetalk: Sshhh! Boy's head is swelling.

    Janfaw: Aw shucks!

  22. I am crazy about this post! I adore the optimism of Lilly, but so powerful was your post that in a blink of an eye - where was I? Shopping on Marimekko's site of course.

  23. I'm with MD on this one, though Boy looks mighty fine in Lily. In fact you are both so adorable you can make any rag look stylish, even Lily.
    xo xo

  24. I often spent summers in Maine as a child in a very small community that seemed inundated by people in Lilly Pulitzer clothes....the brighter the better seemed to be the rule of thumb. My mother wore them too, but my father didn't and wouldn't. I've always wondered if Lilly Pulitzer was connected to the Pulitzer family in St. Louis, and I'm still curious about that. Lilly opened a shop in San Diego, where I now live, and it seems empty. It is a beautiful shop whether you like the clothes or not. I've come 180 degrees because I admire the clothes for their design now, although strictly on someone else. Your post is a very interesting insight into WASP culture, and I would never have imagined that someone could have dug so deep on this particular subject.

  25. Oh God our mothers would have been kindred spirits! Donna hated Lilly too, and STILL loves Marimekko.

    This post had me keeled over!

  26. This is just brilliant. Boy's outfit looks superb. I only wish you chaps would post more often.

  27. beware! this post looks like another" Maids should wear...what was it? LILLY?

  28. As a Washington DC wasp myself I could hardly control myself when reading the part about your Mother. I love your Mother, my kind of woman. Aren't you lucky to have a "No shit" woman to show you the way of life. Ann

  29. Loved the Lily Jacket - and on Nantucket you can pull it off - not always so easy back home! My family and I are on the island right now and it's one of my favorite places in the world rain or shine. Finally though, the rain and wind have swept away. If you're still here, I hope you and Boy are going to enjoy the sunshine and beach tomorrow as we are. We had dinner tonight at The Pearl and it was wonderful! I don't want to ever go home. Enjoy! - Mrs. Marciano

  30. What a cute post, and I think Boy looks smashing in his new jacket. You really nailed the difference in the two camps, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. MD sounds like my kind of girl, but I secretly admit to loving Lily as well. Great fun!

  31. I cannot believe that I have missed all of these posts......hiding at the bottom of some column! And I cannot even LIVE long enough to read them all.......and the comments........I just zoomed past Emily EE.....Lordy!

    anyway; Love the Lilly.......discovered by me visiting my best friend in Palm Beach in 1968; I am an old friend of Gep; it is ridiculous all these things in common.........know Fred........knew Slim (daughter Kitty was in my class at Westlake in 1956) It is just all too much!

  32. oh ps.

    love the Belgians, guys are too cool!!!!!!!!!!!!

    It is all "Slobbovia" except have answered my question.........wherever you hang out!

  33. Guess what? I bought the matching shirt Chinoiserie from Steven Stolman's men's collection for my husband......beige background? black chinoiserie pattern?? Chinese guys with parasols?

    This is scary.

    Steven Stolman is BACK!! Head of another Palm Beach institution......Jack Rogers!!!!!!!!! Sandals and now clothes!!!!

    He is the BEST!!

  34. Reggie Darling,
    I just happened to stumble across your blog in the past week or so, which is why you can find me greedily absorbing all of your past essays.

    I believe that the era of Lily Pulitzer was that which pushed the genre of 'prep' clothing into its new phase, which is apparently having a heyday. Lilly Pulitzer fabrics served to clearly distinguish the stylish, innovative 'preps' from the traditional, 'fogeyish' old class of New England boarding school alumnus (in which category I place myself, despite barely skinning the cusp of my twenties).
    While the advent of Lilly was a beautiful thing for fashion, and in keeping with the generational mindset at the time, it does give me a twinge of sadness to wander down the streets of Beacon Hill and no longer see a plethora of tweed and Pendleton. Instead, the cardigans, caftans, and bright patterns are successors of the original juice stand inspired prints which encouraged 'preps' to break out of their muted tones and wool wardrobe staples. Unfortunately, by making such loud fashion choices widely acceptable, it opens the door for exceptionally garish displays of "LOOK AT ME, I'M PREPPY' clothing.


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