Megan Garber collects criticisms of the Lilly Pulitzer clothing line and then opens up on it herself, sounding rather like (a more clever) Tom Buchanan denouncing Jay Gatsby, for “selling what cannot, in fact, be bought.”
I’d, of course, never even heard of Lilly Pulitzer, and I have some difficulty perceiving a connection between all those vivid pastels and what Mr. Burke used to refer to as “the unbought grace of life,” but reading this piece in the Atlantic I could not help but think, that if these women’s duds succeed in upsetting lefties so much, Lilly Pulitzer must be doing something right.
In January, the clothing-and-lifestyle brand Lilly Pulitzer announced that it would collaborate with Target, releasing a collection of 250 pieces of apparel, accessories, and home decor by way of the discount chain. This weekend, the results of that collaboration were put up for sale in Target stores and on its website. Both of these events would seem to be innocuous: yet another instance of the discount retailerâ€™s collaboration with a high-end fashion brand, of luxury goods made accessible to the masses, of fashion (relatively) democratized. A win-win! Actually, a win-win-win!
There was something different, however, about this particular launch. #LillyforTarget ended up, remarkably â€¦ angering people. Lots of people.
The collaboration angered, first of all, fans of Lilly Pulitzer, whose clothes have doubled as a â€œpreppy uniformâ€ for decades. It angered Target customers who tried, and failed, to grab $40-ish â€œLillysâ€ during a sale that was meant to span several weeks and instead spanned mere hours. It angered Target executives, who were disappointed in the performance of the chainâ€™s website during the sale and indignant that the products theyâ€™d intended for their customers were being resold on eBay for more than twice the original cost.
Most interestingly, though, #LillyforTarget provoked the vitriol of fashion critics and business-minded brand-watchers. â€œI have never seen a woman wearing Lilly Pulitzer who would not have looked better in a ratty flannel bathrobe,â€ the business writer Megan McArdle confessed. The fashion critic Robin Givhan noted that â€œthe 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 elementâ€”if there were actual design elements to change. But there are not. …
[I]n part, itâ€™s the aesthetics of Pulitzerâ€™s clothes. Which are, with their festively flora-fauna-ed prints, the sartorial equivalents of the people who can’t stop talking about the juice cleanse theyâ€™re on. They are perky, insistently so. They are self-absorbed, aggressively so. Your retinas arenâ€™t currently up for seeing some bubble-gum-pink toucans, their bills interlocked in an explosion of avian paisley? Lilly Pulitzer does not care. Lilly Pulitzer does not even think to ask.
The broader criticism, though, is the performance of identity that the Pulitzer brand represents. â€œLillyâ€ is not about luxury; it is about privilege. There is an important distinction between the two, Givhan notes. The brand, she writes, â€œsuggests 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-grandfatherâ€™s name. Lilly Pulitzer represents something that money cannot buy.â€
Which is another way of saying that Pulitzerâ€™s clothes evoke not just wealth, but class. They speak to a status that is conferred rather than earned, and that cannotâ€”with apologies to hard work and good luck and all the other vehicles of the American dreamâ€”be fully democratized. The garments are evidence in that sense not (just) of conspicuous consumption, but rather of privilege as it plays out as an economic system. They nod to, and then politely ignore, Thomas Piketty. Those whimsy-dripping pineapples, those insouciant peacocks, the designs that are often described as â€œeye-poppingâ€â€”they are evidence not just of â€œresortwearâ€ gone mainstream, but also of the ease of living enjoyed by those who can use the term â€œresortwearâ€ unironically. These are clothes that are worn by people for whom life is, in relative terms, a permanent vacation.
Read the whole thing… and marvel.