NEW YORK — Lilly Pulitzer, the Palm Beach princess of prints who created an enduring fashion uniform for wealthy socialites and jet setters almost by accident, died Sunday at her home in Florida. She was 81.
Her death was confirmed by the Lilly Pulitzer company, which provided no further details.
As the story goes, in its most romanticized version, Ms. Pulitzer’s fashion empire, famous for its tropical print shift dresses and lighthearted embrace of jarring color combinations like flamingo pink and apple green, was born out of necessity.
In 1959, after opening a juice stand among the citrus groves of Palm Beach, Ms. Pulitzer, an heiress herself who had married young into the wealthy publishing family, needed a dress that would camouflage the stains of countless orange and grapefruit spills. So she had one made, creating a look that proved to be so popular it would become a mark of membership for old-money families at play for more than five decades. Her vividly flowered housedresses became known, in the shorthand of the rich, simply as Lillys.
Of course, the story was more complicated — full of joie de vivre though not entirely happy at the beginning — but then the beauty of Lilly Pulitzer dresses was that they were designed to be something of a disguise. Made of plain cotton, constructed so simply that they could be re-created at home, the modestly priced dresses embodied the ‘‘Puritan ethics of balance and value,’’ as Laura Jacobs wrote in a Vanity Fair profile of Ms. Pulitzer in 2003. They were accessible to most, but really wearable only by the few who were so rich that they could afford to have bad taste. A minidress of green peacocks dancing with merry seashells is not for just anyone.
At its height in the 1960s and 1970s, Lilly Pulitzer, with its popular resort wear, had sales of more than $15 million, a store on Jobs Lane in Southampton, N.Y., and clients like Jacqueline Kennedy and C.Z. Guest. Revived by a licensing company two decades ago, after Ms. Pulitzer’s retirement, the label now has sales of roughly $75 million with modern takes on many of her original prints.
“I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy . . . fruits, vegetables, politics, or peacocks,’’ Ms. Pulitzer told the Associated Press in 2009. ‘‘It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy.’’
Lillian Lee McKim was born in Roslyn, N.Y., the second of three daughters of Robert and Lillian McKim. Her mother, whose maiden name was Bostwick, was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune and left her husband for the racing enthusiast Ogden Phipps in 1937.
Lilly and her sisters, Mimsy and Flossie, had a privileged upbringing, attending the Chapin School in New York and Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn. Lilly briefly attended college, but left to work as a nurse’s aide.
While on vacation in Palm Beach, she met Herbert ‘‘Peter’’ Pulitzer Jr., a dashingly handsome grandson of the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and shocked her family by eloping with him in 1952. The couple settled among the citrus groves of the Pulitzer estate, throwing wild parties and generally ignoring whatever was expected of them from their society peers.
They had had three children within five years, when Ms. Pulitzer suddenly returned to New York suffering from what was described as a nervous collapse, and a marriage, she said, that was driving her crazy.
When she finally came back to Florida, she started selling fruit from her husband’s citrus groves, and then opened a juice stand on Worth Avenue with an acquaintance from New York, Laura Robbins, a former editor at Harper’s Bazaar, partly to keep herself busy.
According to the Vanity Fair profile, both women, while struggling with juice stains, struck on the idea of a patterned dress at the same time. They began selling the dresses at the juice stand, for $22.
While Ms. Pulitzer’s first marriage did not last — she divorced Peter Pulitzer, again shocking their friends, and married Enrique Rousseau, who had worked for her first husband and then a hotel, in 1969 — the business took off, eventually with sales of more than $15 million.
At first, her dresses were seen almost exclusively in Palm Beach circles, and then globally when her wealthy friends began appearing in the designs in magazines. Kennedy, a classmate from Miss Porter’s, wore a Pulitzer dress while on vacation: ‘‘It was made from kitchen curtain material and people went crazy,’’ Ms. Pulitzer said. ‘‘They took off like Zingo.’’ Ms. Pulitzer continued designing until 1984, when a series of ill-timed expansions, combined with changing tastes toward more minimal designs, led the company to seek bankruptcy protection.
The label was revived in the 1990s by Sugartown Worldwide, which was acquired in 2010 by Oxford Industries in a deal valued as high as $80 million.
Although Ms. Pulitzer occasionally consulted with the company in recent years, once she retired, she threw out most of her archives and went on with her life in Palm Beach.
“Lilly the lady was so much more than Lilly the label,’’ Steven Stolman, a designer who consulted on a retrospective of Ms. Pulitzer’s work in 2008 at Parsons the New School for Design, said Sunday. ‘‘In reality, her persona was far more colorful than the clothes. In so many aspects, she was a very reluctant fashion icon.’’
Part of her reluctance to promote herself, she often said, came from her upbringing. She meticulously avoided personal publicity, as was once common of people of bottomless wealth, though she remained interested in the company. Stolman recalled her disappointment when he was unable to obtain a specific print she wanted for the exhibition, because the cost of obtaining it on the vintage market was outside his budget.
“A budget,’’ she told him, ‘‘how embarrassing.’’