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March 7, 2013 Volume 34, No. 22

Nelly Don clothing show offers a time capsule to a bygone America

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GETTING IT RIGHT Nicole Johnson, left, historic costume collection manager in the Department of Textile and Apparel Management, and Laurel Wilson, professor emerita of Textile and Apparel, prepare dresses for the “Nelly Don” show in the State Historical Society in Ellis Library. Photo by Rachel Coward


Kansas City was the Midwest capital of clothing design

In the early 20th century, a Midwest housewife wanted something better to wear than the frumpy Mother Hubbard-style outfits of the day. So in 1919 she formed a clothing company. Twelve years later, Donnelly Garment Co. in Kansas City, Mo., was worth $3.5 million and employed 1,000 workers. 

The story of Ellen Quinlan Donnelly Reed, who lived in the Kansas City area her entire life, is one of the great American stories of female entrepreneurship. Samples of her dresses are on display through May 18 in the State Historical Society’s main gallery in Ellis Library.

Along with about 20 dresses, the “Nelly Don: Self Made, Ready-Made” show features explanatory wall text and dozens of photos and illustrations on how Reed created the outfits, the trajectory of her company and her legacy.

“She wanted to make dresses from home to work,” said Nicole Johnson, historic costume collection manager in the Department of Textile and Apparel Management.

At the time, inexpensive women’s apparel tended to be unflattering and plain. In 1916, Reed decided to do something about it. She made dresses derivative of the shirt-and-waist style with open collars, no collars, round necks and sometimes with lace. 

The dollar dresses, though more expensive than what was widely available, found a niche with housewives and working women. They were flattering yet could also fit various body types. They were durable with flair. 

Money saved by using cotton fabric and avoiding zippers was directed toward giving the outfits personality. In the “Nelly Don” show, a series of 1940s and ’50s dresses have polka dots and other designs. Some have fringed bows at the neck. A dress made during World War II has military buttons adorned with an eagle and service stripes. 

Besides being a designer, Reed was a progressive business woman in that she offered employees generous benefits. Donnelly Garment Co. provided an employee pension plan, health care coverage, life insurance benefits and a company recreation center, according to an article by Kimberly Harper posted on the State Historical Society’s website.

In America at the time, New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey were the major clothes designing hubs. But Kansas City also had its appeal, as it offered lower business costs, lower cost of living and plenty of laborers, said Laurel Wilson, professor emerita of Textile and Apparel Management. The success of Donnelly caused a migration of designers to the Midwest city.

The golden age of Donnelly Garment was the two decades after World War II. TV comedies from the 1950s such as “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver” sometimes showed women wearing Donnelly attire. 

With the company at its peak, Reed in 1956 sold her interest and retired. She died in 1991 at the age 101.

The new owners of Reed’s company renamed it Nelly Don Inc. But by 1978, Nelly Don was bankrupt.

Wilson said several factors led to the company’s downfall. One of the problems was that, by the 1970s, more American clothes companies were outsourcing work, enabling them to cut their prices well below those of Nelly Don. The new owners also weren’t as savvy as Reed in design and understanding what women want.

Items popular in America more than 50 years ago tend to take on Americana charm. Reed’s clothing certainly has. But the dresses also go beyond being dusty museum pieces. 

Last week, students in Textile and Apparel Management helped set up the “Nelly Don” show. The women said they would wear the dresses. 

Well, most of them. 

The colorful dresses with open collars post-World War II received thumbs up. The dark high-collared dresses of the 1930s Depression received fixed stares.