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Female Fashionistas from Southeast Kansas - August 5, 2016

Five illustrations of house dresses by Nelly Don, used in advertisements across the USA in 1922. (Photo via Wikimedia)

Q: Born in Parsons, this southeast Kansas woman became a famous women's fashion designer and multi-millionaire businesswoman. She did so by creating house dresses sold under the brand name "Nelly Don." By the 1950s, her garment company had become the largest manufacturer of women's clothing in the world. What's the name of this fashion designer?

A: Nell Donnelly Reed
Nell Donnelly ReedNell Donnelly Reed was born Ellen Quinlan in Parsons in 1889. She was the twelfth child of an Irish immigrant and his wife. She graduated from Parsons High School and took a position as a stenographer in Kansas City. She married Paul J. Donnelly, who helped fund her studies at Lindenwood College. 
Nell was a talented seamstress and made many of her own clothes. She made attractive, ruffled dresses and aprons with quality, durable fabrics. Her friends and neighbors took notice and asked whether she would also make dresses for them. In 1916, she started selling her first designs through a large local department store, the Gregory B. Peck Dry Goods Company in Kansas.  
Nell's dresses quickly sold out, even though - at a dollar each - they were more expensive than the average house dress at the time. Sales continued and in 1919, Nell and Paul Donnelly established the Donnelly Garment Company, which thrived. In 1927, Kansas City voted Nell its most illustrious businesswoman for her success in turning them into a successful center for ready-to-wear clothing. The garment company weathered the Great Depression quite well. By 1931, sales figures reached $3.5 million. The company employed more than 1,000 workers.  
In 1932, Nell divorced Paul Donnelly. A year later, she married James A. Reed, a former U.S. Senator from Missouri and a man with whom she had had a child years earlier. After her divorce from Donnelly, Nell became the company's sole shareholder. As head of the company, she focused on the welfare of her employees, providing life insurance, a pension plan, medical care and an on-site cafeteria. She financially supported employees who wished to study evening courses at the local college, and she started a scholarship fund for the children of her employees.  
By 1953, the Donnelly Garment Company was the world's largest manufacturer of women's clothing. Nell retired from the company in 1956. She died in 1991, at the age of 102.  

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