The intense frenzy surrounding the new, blink-and-you-missed-it-because-the-girls-have-been-lined-up-since-dawn Lilly Pulitzer diffusion line at Target has caused many people to wonder: How can such a vibrant, rabid market (and after-market) exist for such phenomenally boring and showily tasteless shift dresses?
At the Washington Post, Robin Givhan sliced the Lilly Pulitzer aesthetic to pieces this past Monday, writing, “Lilly Pulitzer is not fashion. It is clothes.”
The classic Lilly Pulitzer dress comes in shrill shades of yellow and pink that are vaguely infantilizing. They are clothes that can be shrunk down and worn by 7-year-old girls without changing a single design element—if there were actual design elements to change. But there are not.
Lilly Pulitzer is preppy. It is part of a preppy uniform that announces itself from fifty paces. It is not so much a declaration of wealth as it is a perceived statement about class, lineage and attitude. Anyone can work hard and save up enough cash to go out and purchase a Chanel suit or a Gucci handbag. A devoted student of Vogue can cobble together a personal style that speaks to its public identity. But Lilly Pulitzer suggests an advantage of birth. The clothes stir up scrapbook notions of ancient family trees, summer compounds, boarding school uniforms, and large, granite buildings inscribed with some great-great-grandfather’s name. Lilly Pulitzer represents something that money cannot buy.
Givhan adds, “The clothes are, upon close inspection, not so terribly attractive. Actually, they are rather unattractive. And that is part of their charm. They are not meant to be stylish—that’s so nouveau.”
Following that, at the Atlantic, Megan Garber asks where the force behind this hate really comes from, suggesting that the distaste for the Lilly girl is similar to the distaste for the conformist “basic” (but let’s really never get into that one again, shall we), and stating that “even sundresses can be part of the culture wars.” She writes:
Pulitzer’s clothes are, again, “uniforms”—which are, on the whole, designed to free their wearers from the burdens of free thinking. And this is perhaps the main source of the ire about Pulitzer’s clothes: The garments suggest a kind of willful conscription, celebrating what happens when wealth and status are accompanied by an insistent rejection of creativity.
If you agree with this—and I do—the Lilly Pulitzer brand essentially suggests the absolute worst a person can be: privileged to the bone while also being either so fearfully status-mongering or flat-out dull as to live without even seizing upon the beautiful freedom that privilege confers. An aesthetic this fixed suggests a surefire retrenchment: a calcified smugness as an escape from anything destabilizing—variety, let’s say, of all sorts, and the anxiety that it confers. The only visual type of person who would really stun in a Lilly dress is a very tall, dark-skinned woman; you’ll notice that the company hasn’t exactly gone that route in their advertising.
Like Tracy Moore wrote, trying to signify wealth as an aesthetic end in itself just makes you look like an asshole—no matter whether you’re actually wealthy or not, which makes the whole thing even more depressing. And Garber points out, the whole brand is pinned on a paradox: Lilly Pulitzer is a brand you buy in order to signify the kind of status that cannot be bought.
And yet, people stay trying to buy it. This shift dress was originally $40 and is selling on eBay for $650, with 20 bids. This is sad and demoralizing, because: Lilly Pulitzer is the visual representation of intellectual failure. Lilly Pulitzer is the objective correlative of a lack of an inner life. Lilly Pulitzer is a nervous giggle in the presence of an unexpected thought. Lilly Pulitzer is a man at a country club saying America was better in the ‘40s. Lilly Pulitzer is a party without music. Lilly Pulitzer is a person whispering “That’s random” over and over into a hot pink coffin. Lilly Pulitzer is a pox on the good name of white people. Lilly Pulitzer is flat-out ugly as shit.
Image via Lilly Pulitzer