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Nelly Don, American Fashion Story

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

You know you love a dress if you put it on and are instantly swept away in the thought of where you would be when wearing it, and just how you'd style it. This Nelly Don seafoam vintage dress did exactly that to me. I pulled it over my head, zipped up the back, tied the belt loop, and as my eyes glazed over at myself in the mirror, I was swept away in a daydreamy cloud. In my mind, I'm walking down a cobblestone street, exploring a quaint seaside Pacific Northwestern town I've never been to before. Warm local coffee in hand that tastes like cinnamon and caramel, the leaves are crunching under my white biker boots, and my fur coat draped over my shoulders to keep me warm but left open to allow the dress to show through. The smell of seasons changing in the air kick up in each step with that foggy peppery aroma and slight fetor of salty fish, tickling my nose hairs.

Jump back to real-time, I got to thinking, I just had to know more about Nelly Don.

It turns out, her name was Nell Quinlan Donnelly Reed and she was a fashion designer and total boss ass woman born in Kansas City, March 6th of 1889 (my fellow Piscean sister). I was actually a bit surprised that at that same time, just across the big pond, was Coco Chanel also designing clothing and starting her own iconic brand that would stand the test of time. How is it that Nell's brand isn't as well known and it's from right here in our own American backyard?

Nell got her start after being the youngest in her Irish descended family of 13 kids, so she of course got the hand-me-downs from her five older sisters, which she would then upcycle to give her own personal touch. A girl after my own heart!

She married at the ripe ole age of 17 to Paul Donnelly (hence the branding name) and after a couple of years in college, her Stepford wifey roles began. All seemed just as it should be but something was bugging her. She felt the typical "housewife" clothing was a total snore-fest. Who wants to wear boring earth-tone rags day in and day out?! Not hot. Not cute. Not I.

She wanted to create something flattering and functional for the everyday woman so she grabbed her sewing machine and went to work. She constructed dresses and aprons that complimented the female body of all sizes (she, herself, was a size 16), with color and pleats, fun patterns, and thoughtful design, one of the first being pink gingham and you know I LOVE me some gingham. Eventually, friends and neighbors started admiring her garments and would ask her to make more.

So with the influential power beheld in the word of mouth of a bunch of women (marketing more effective than any corporate commercial could dream of), the popularity of her garments took off and she was able to consign her first designs in a local department store. Her brand slogan became "Nelly Don, just try one on!"

She charged $1 per dress, which in our time now is the equivalent of $100. Most women paid no more than .69 cents for their typical drab Mother Hubbard clothes, but when it came to Nelly Don clothing, it was worth every penny to look that good. Perhaps this is what kicked off the baby boom in the 1940's...ya wives all bending over in the kitchen showing a tease of an ankle in their Nelly Don swing dress.

Her business success snowballed and in 1916 she founded Donnelly Garment Co.

Between 1916 and 1978, her factory created 75 million dresses and by the '50s, her company was the largest manufacturer of women's clothing worldwide.

She had 1,000+ people working for her in her garment district factory and focused on the well-being of her employees. She was sure to provide health insurance, a pension plan, promotions to management, and even funded support for those who wanted to attend night school to further their education just as she did, an unconventional move for women of that time.

Rumor has it she only had to let go of one employee in the years she headed the business.

Nell lived to be 102 and passed in 1991.

The story of Nelly Don, has been in a documentary film, book, and even turned into a play. However, her life wasn't all roses, frills, and success. Her first husband after being committed to a sanitarium eventually killed himself, later being diagnosed manic-depressive. In 1931, Nell was kidnapped at gunpoint and held for a $75,000 ransom (that's the equivalent of 1.3 million now). It's been said that her husband, upon receiving the ransom letter, called upon his attorney who then rallied up some old friends in the organized crime world, and it was them who eventually tracked down her captors and rescued her from them. She was said to have been plopped safely in a candy store surrounded by onlookers when she was picked up by police.

Later, Nell would marry that same attorney and politician who helped save her, Mr. James A. Reed and they would eventually move into a lovely mansion on Cherry St. Cherry Street is such a lovely name for an address, isn't it? I've always wanted to live on a "Cherry Street". I digress. If you're nosey as hell like me, take a look at her mansion here. It was on the market for sale in 2014, estimated at just over 1 million but is off the market at this time. It's an absolute dream of a house.

I couldn't find much on the person or person(s) that purchased her company after she retired. They maintained the name but eventually ran it into the ground, rendering it bankrupt in the '70's.

I've barely grazed the surface of Nell Donnelly and her life story. I just wanted to shed a little light on someone I admire as a businesswoman, a fellow Pisces, and a completely understated historical female figure.

To learn more about Nell told by the experts that have studied her, follow the link credits below.

I'd like to thank this dress for inspiring me to look up its vintage back-story. It was a fun one to research.


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