Saturday, August 30, 2014

Nell Donnelly Reed: More Than Just a Fashion-Starter

I learned about this woman on Mysteries at the Museum too. She invented the housedress, survived an abduction, started a very successful dress-making business, provided her employees with benefits (not common during her time), and had a long-standing love affair with a powerful senator. Why there isn't a movie about her or a historical novel *hint, hint, darling authors* is beyond me.

She married at 17, yet that didn't stop her from going to college and then selling her dress designs at a local store. What started as two women sewing 216 dresses in Nell's attic in 1916 became the Donnelly Garment Company, which by 1953 "was the largest manufacturer of women's clothing worldwide."

Her workers actually resisted becoming unionized, and that's rare. She had a scholarship fund for her workers, financially supported their evening classes, provided insurance and medical financial aid, pensions, and even an on-site cafeteria and recreation center. And being a size 16 herself, Nell was adamant that her dresses look good on bigger women as well as small.

The abduction (at gunpoint) of her and her chauffeur was all about ransom. It was her secret (hm. Perhaps not so secret, considering she'd had a baby with him and her husband at the time knowingly adopted the child...) lover, former mayor and senator James A. Reed, who came to her aid by involving the local Kansas City mafia. The big man, a John Lazia tracked her down, but at that point, the perps had gotten wind that Lazia was after them and except for two lone waters, they'd hightailed it from the scene of the crime.

A mere two years later, she divorced her first husband and married Reed, recently widowed. After her retirement in 1956, the company she had worked so hard to build could not survive without her savvy designs and went bankrupt in 1978.

Nell lived to be 102. What a fascinating woman! Way ahead of her time. A designer, a survivor, a lover, a kind-hearted employer, and a successful woman who did what she wanted. Someone, write a novel based on her!

References: *Picture can be found on their site*


  1. Love this photo. Interesting post. Thanks!

    1. The photo is from the second website listed under references. Thank you for stopping by though. Let's keep awareness going of these amazing women in history!