Mixed signals.

Photographer: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Target

Lilly Pulitzer Turns Target Inside Out

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for Lilly Pulitzer’s clothes. Not to wear, mind you, because they are ugly as sin; I have never seen a woman wearing Lilly Pulitzer who would not have looked better in a ratty flannel bathrobe. But the ugliness is rather the point. Here you have an entire clothing line that exists to signal that the wearer is so young and comely, or so comfortable in her social status, that she does not need to bother finding attractive garb, and instead can clomp around in a brightly colored bag.  There’s a sort of grandeur to the whole project.

So I should not have been surprised that the company decided to partner with Target. After all, for the stated purpose, Lilly Pulitzer for Target is even better than the original: You care so little about what you wear that you bought the cheapest possible version rather than laying out $200 to look like you swiped the slipcovers from the lobby of a genteelly declining Florida motel.

What’s all wrong is the people who mobbed Target’s stores and crashed the website in a desperate attempt to get their hands on some cut-rate clothes. Lilly Pulitzer is, as Robin Givhan notes, the embodiment of the preppy fashion ethos. And if that ethos could be written in words rather than in the hearts of every man who gleefully pulls out his Nantucket reds and his ridiculous hats come Memorial Day, it would go like this: “I don’t care enough about anyone’s opinion to dress well.”

Of course, as with many elitist customs, it is not the truth of the proposition that matters, only the appearance of it. I was in high school during the Great Preppy Craze of the 1980s, and I can attest firsthand that the people who pulled it off most successfully put an enormous amount of thought and effort into looking as if they had just rolled out of bed that way. But here's one thing we do know: You cannot successfully claim not to care if you were up at dawn, queuing in front of a big box store or doing stretching exercises with your keyboarding fingers in order to get your hands on some clothes. Actually wearing Target’s Lilly Pulitzer line, therefore, signals the exact opposite of what it is supposed to.

There’s an economics lesson in here somewhere. Signaling is one of the most fascinating and elusive things that economists study, precisely because signals can be so fragile. Send too strong a signal and it can actually backfire, like a politician who tries hard to show voters that he shares their values and instead convinces them that he’s a flip-flopper and therefore can’t be trusted. Or a shopper who tries to signal devil-may-care insouciance by storming the racks at Target.

  1. Not a sack. Unlike Lilly Pulitzer clothes, sacks have a well-defined structure that is admirably suited to their purpose.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net