State Historical Society
Nell Donnelly Reed
By Nicole Heisick
Creator of Stylish Fashion for Women (1889-1991)
Nell Donnelly Reed didn’t like wearing drab, dull housedresses. What woman would? Instead of complaining or doing nothing about it, she decided to make a change. Reed began making and selling stylish dresses in 1916 to replace plain and simple dresses, and by the 1940s, her Kansas City-based clothing company was one of the largest of its kind in the world. She created her label, Nelly Don, with the hopes of challenging the idea that it was impossible to create stylish clothing that could sell to more than just privileged women. Reed was also an early champion of employee benefits, offering some health benefits and scholarships for children of employees.
Reed was born on March 6, 1889, and grew up in Parsons, Kansas. She moved to Kansas City, Missouri, after marrying Paul Donnelly. Reed was dissatisfied with the bland style of ordinary housedresses and created more stylish attire for herself. These dresses attracted a great deal of positive attention from fellow housewives, and Reed decided that all women should have the choice to wear more stylish clothes. In 1916, she opened a small factory in downtown Kansas City for less than $1,500. She sold her first dresses for $1 each, a high price compared to the standard 67 cents for regular housedresses. Reed drew inspiration for her clothing line from her ideal dress, believing that other housewives would feel the same way. It wasn’t always about dressing to impress others, but about each housewife finding her individual style and expressing herself.
Her company experienced rapid growth in the 1930s. By 1935, she had a $3.5 million business with 1,000 employees. As an astute businesswoman, Reed successfully led her company through depressions, recessions, wars, and regulatory battles with the federal government.
In 1935, Fortune magazine described her as one of the most successful businesswomen in the United States. She was one of the first business leaders in her city to offer paid group hospitalization for employees. To their children, she gave scholarships to help pay for tuition to local colleges.
For these innovations, Reed was considered ahead of her time. Her business, the Donnelly Garment Company, helped turn Kansas City into a thriving ready-to-wear clothing manufacturing center.
Reed sold her company in 1956, and it became known as Nelly Don Inc. After her retirement, Reed stayed involved in business and civic affairs in Kansas City, serving on the school board as well as numerous social and cultural institutions, including the Kansas City Art Institute and the Midwest Research Institute. Reed died on September 8, 1991. As a pioneer in women’s ready-to-wear clothing in the 1920s and ’30s,
Reed impacted the fashion world, challenging what was available and how improvements could be made, in both the fashion industry and labor relations.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing our Top 10 Women of Missouri, featured in the February 2012 of Missouri Life and selected by our panelists. To read our panelists’ bios, click here. For a full list of our 95 nominees for Top 10 Women of Missouri, click here. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life magazine.