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How palm frond print went from the French Riviera to Target

Once a symbol of conspicuous leisure, it’s now the most ubiquitous summer print year after year.

There are 267 palm frond printed items available on ASOS. And 32,907 on Etsy. 
Getty Images/EyeEm

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: Palm frond print. You know — a print that is just a basic illustration of the leaves of a palm tree. Sometimes conflated with banana leaf print, though they are not the same thing. (Banana leaves, when used in American fashion and design, have a distinctly colonialist vibe that palm trees do not quite have.) Palm frond print can be neon or pastel or black and white, and the palm fronds do not have to be the actual color of palm trees, which in the case of Los Angeles right now is mostly a sickly yellow.

Where it is: It has been [0] days since you last saw palm frond print. Palm fronds are on the cheap iPhone cases at the Forever 21 checkout. They’re on something between 40 and 98 percent of the sundresses at every summer picnic. They’re on pillows, doormats, pool floats. They’re in framed prints in beachside motels, and in the wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (Plus at least one Southern Charm star’s bedroom, and maybe yours if you shop at Anthropologie, Home Depot, West Elm, Pottery Barn, or Wayfair.) They are on seven palm print bathing suits currently available at Target. Two hundred and sixty available items on Asos. Possibly 33,079 available items on Etsy.

Even Good Morning America loves palm fronds. It is now a standard print, for everyone, and has been for a minute. Last summer it was at Macy’s, Club Monaco, Urban Outfitters, and the Walmart-owned ModCloth. The year before, it was on a S’well water bottle and a $25 H&M tablecloth. Saint Laurent’s 2016 palm print bomber jacket sold for $2,690 and was worn by Olivia Wilde, Justin Bieber, and Keith Richards, though it was shown months after former star of The Hills Lauren Conrad blogged about palm print, directing her readers to offerings from Old Navy.

The Guardian covered the palm print trend in August 2014, with fashion writer Lauren Cochrane saying, “You can tell by taking a trip to the trend central that is Topshop, where [palm fronds] are everywhere. Come November, however, this trend will be O-V-E-R.” Whoops!

Why you’re seeing it everywhere: Palm frond print is a perfect example of the coming together of high fashion and fast fashion — a trend that has been rapidly accelerated by Instagram and the direct-to-consumer shake-up in manufacturing.

But its entire history is one of distinctly American aspirations — the longing for a life that is not just livable but glamorous and fun.

In a history of the palm trees of Los Angeles, Atlas Obscura’s Dan Nosowitz explains how Californian cities — in their youth, alongside the railroad system, at the end of the 19th century — attempted to lure people to the desert by mimicking the allure of the French Riviera. That area had only recently become cool, thanks to the presence of a bunch of famous modernist novelists, and “a trendy new health fad in which time in a dry warm climate is supposed to have good effects on the body.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles in 1989. George Rose/Getty Images

Around this time, Nosowitz writes, “Palms took off as a symbol of wealth, luxury, nice weather, vacation.” (They appear to have made their way to fashion quite quickly. A photo in a 1924 issue of Vogue shows actress Helen Lee Worthing in a palm print drop-waist dress and wide-brimmed straw hat.) So in 1931, Los Angeles planted an estimated 25,000 non-native palm trees along all of its major roads. “The region’s most cliché icons, instantly associated with good times, good weather,” as the writer Char Jansen described them. “A palm tree is the ultimate in easy aesthetics: pretty, finely shaped, and exotic.”

From then on, the working class and the leisure class were playing a never-ending game of tug-of-war with the palm tree. As much as it was a symbol of the glitz of Hollywood and the “Manifest Destiny” of California, it was also a symbol of something as simple as sunshine, and — with the advent of the highway — as accessible as vacation. In 1905, the middle class blossomed in Los Angeles thanks to the building of an aqueduct connecting developments to the Colorado River, and these new homeowners started planting palm trees too. As botanist Scott Zona writes in a history of the plant, these people were able to “convincingly emulate the larger gardens of the state’s wealthiest citizens.”

The “young matrons” of Palm Beach — including Wendy Vanderbilt — wearing new Lilly Pulitzer dresses in 1964. Slim Aarons/Getty Images

How does this relate to patterned bathing suits and leafy mini dresses? Take the story of Lilly Pulitzer — an oil heiress who eloped with a newspaper heir — moving to Palm Beach in 1952.

“She’s an exotically bohemian type, a bronzed brunette who plays tennis barefoot, hosts riotous parties, and walks down Worth Avenue with her pet rhesus monkey on her shoulder,” Emily Goulet wrote in a history of Pulitzer’s $200 million brand for Philadelphia magazine. She started making tropical-patterned shift dresses — lined, so that she would not have to wear underwear — while working at a juice stand with retired Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Laura Robbins Clark, then built a cult following selling them for $22 a pop to the town’s wealthy vacationers. Jackie Kennedy wore one in Life magazine in 1962, which is to say at the start of the decade of rich people going on cruises.

Then Karl Lagerfeld made a line of 27 palm tree and island-printed silk scarves for Chloé in 1975, which were imported from Paris by a New York boutique called California Things and sold for $60 apiece (about $285 with today’s inflation). Throughout the 1970s, Kelly green palm leaves were popular on cruise-wear and printed on pricey silk dresses. Palm trees were Joan Didion’s icon of choice, referenced in the same sentences as Hollywood actresses, Patty Hearst, and Iranian arms deals — all the vectors of money, celebrity, and hidden violence she was most interested in.

Pulitzer herself wasn’t an elitist; she was a weirdo who hated shoes. But by the time Lilly Pulitzer announced a Target collaboration in 2015, that was all but forgotten. The brand had been purchased by some Harvard MBA graduates in 1993 (about a decade after the company had filed for bankruptcy), and, as Goulet put it, “brought it back from the dead” this time as “the essential regalia of WASP-y blue bloods.”

The Target collaboration sold out within minutes but brought out the ugly side of the new Lilly Pulitzer empire — longtime fans of the brand tweeted things like “Sorry but Lilly Pulitzer should not be sold at Target. Sucks if you can’t afford it but that’s life” and “If you weren’t classy enough to have it before, you sure as hell aren’t classy enough now.” The rich and the average both feel a claim on the palm tree, which explains why it never exactly goes out of style. When one gets sick of it, the other picks it back up. When one steals it away, the other gets territorial about it.

Etsy’s in-house trend expert Dayna Isom Johnson tells me that there have been 170,000 searches for “palm frond print” on the platform in the past six months, but it’s been extremely popular for at least a few years, and can be linked to the full-throated return of maximalism and the resurgence of ’70s references in home decor.

“One thing you really associate with the 1970s is strong wallpaper prints,” Johnson says, and wallpaper is one of the categories in which palm print shows up the most. She guesses that it’s a way for people to add greenery to their homes without actually rearing plants — which millennials notoriously love, and often admit to failing at.

In 2013, Miuccia Prada showed silk jackets, vintage suitcases, and matching men’s and women’s blouses covered in palm leaves, with the New York Times noting that the dresses, “which were shown with high-top sneakers, wouldn’t look out of place on a reality television show set on a cruise ship.” Prada told the Times that she wanted “to question the idea of going on vacation,” which is meant to be fun but is actually “menacing” (in her words) and “maybe a little sad” (in the Times’s). In any case, the reviewer hated the show and complained that “clichés were stamped all over the clothes.”

So the reason you’re seeing the palm frond everywhere now is pretty simple: It can’t go anywhere. The palm trees of Didion’s Los Angeles are reaching the end of their 100-year life span, their deaths accelerated by fungi and insects that prey easily on the non-native species. The city plans to replace them with trees that consume less water and provide more shade, but the enormous fronds falling from the sky and disrupting traffic are not compostable, so they will occupy plenty of space for a good long time.

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