Three icons pass across culture

This week the world lost three iconic women: Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister; Annette Funicello, star of television and film; and Lily Pulitzer Rousseau, the noted fashion designer. With the passing of these three accomplished women, it behooves us to reflect on the attributes that propelled each of them to the top of their respective fields. Also, we should pause to consider what it says about our culture that three very distinct voices each made such an impact on the world.

With Thatcher the task is pretty straightforward. She was raised in an era when the political ascension of women was so tightly circumscribed that a mere half decade before her installment as prime minister, she herself could not imagine that a woman would hold the post “in (her) lifetime.”

Hold it she did. One doesn’t get the nickname “the Iron Lady” for orderly tea service and demurred discourse. She proved herself as competent and contentious as any man that preceded her. Perhaps only Winston Churchill himself had more lasting influence on the political and economic stage.

The case of Mickey Mouse Club alum Annette Funicello is somewhat more complicated. She too occupies a memorable and influential place in the culture, but her stature emanates from a much different place.

Funicello caught the eye of Walt Disney when she was just 13 years old. With her background in dance and natural perk, she quickly became a Mickey Mouse Club fan favorite. As she matured, her fan base came with her. She remained with Disney for a number of years after leaving the Mouseketeers. During that period, she stared in a number of popular films.

Perhaps her most enduring visage comes from the series of beach party movies she made with co-star Frankie Avalon. In these silly films Funicello traded Mary-Janes and mouse ears for an ever retreating swimsuit. The beach pics only served to solidify her place as “America’s Sweetheart,” but for arguably more complex reasons.

As a cultural figure, she provided a mid-1960s bridge between the pearl and heels housewife image of Donna Reed and the raw sexuality of Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch.

Later in life, she provided a different kind of image: one of courage and resolve. With her 1987 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she showed the world how to fight against a terrible disease and how to do it with poise and a positive outlook.

Lastly, this week, the world lost Lily Pulitzer Rousseau, storied fashion designer. While Rousseau’s name is not spoken with the same broad recognition as Thatcher and Funicello, she nonetheless holds an important position in popular culture. Among a certain set, a “Lily” dress is de rigueur.

As Lisa Birnbach observes in The Official Preppy Handbook, “Lily beach dress. For having lunch on the terrace at the club, when something is needed to put on over the bathing suit. What could be cuter than a lily print cover-up, with monkeys drinking champagne or elephants dancing the fox-trot, in brilliant unnatural colors?”

Birnbach’s witty positioning of Lily dresses reflected many things, not the least of which was Rousseau’s own patrician upbringing. As a CNN report of Rousseau’s death states, “Her schoolmate, Jacqueline Kennedy, while first lady, was photographed wearing one of Pulitzer’s dresses — and made her a star. The dress ‘was made from kitchen curtain material — and people went crazy,’ Pulitzer said in her book, Essentially Lily: A Guide to Colorful Entertaining. ‘They took off like zingo. Everybody loved them, and I went into the dress business.’”

As we pause to reflect on the lives and influence of the three women, it gives us an opportunity to examine many broader topics: How have women’s roles changed? Why are women so often defined by their fashion sense — even reports of Thatcher’s demise speak of her unchanging hair and omnipresent pearls. What lessons can we teach our daughters from these important cultural figures?