Before the 1920s, the utilitarian dresses women wore weren’t anything special. Actually, they were quite stodgy, with no form or shape.
“Nell always described them as sixty-nine cent Calico cloth sacks that you bought straight off of the rack at dry goods stores,” says Terence O’Malley, great grandnephew of Nell Donnelly who wrote books, a documentary and a musical about his relative.
Starting in 1919, Parsons, Kansas, native Donnelly led one of the most successful businesses of her era, selling over an estimated fifty million dresses out of four factories in Kansas City.
In 1919, Nell and Paul Donnelly launched Donnelly Garment Company and started making dresses that were attractive, utilitarian and affordable. The dresses were branded as Nelly Don. Nell studied Ford Motor Company and the sectional manufacturing techniques of the aviation industry and applied these principles to dress manufacturing.
After traveling to France and Austria to study fashion, Nell became the first person to apply designs to cotton and rayon that had previously only been applied to silk.
“She was the first one to put extra baggies of buttons on dresses, and she was the first one to put removable shoulder pads in dresses,” O’Malley says. She was also the first to apply fabric to belts, to put labels on garments and to put snaps on dresses. At one point, Nelly Don was the country’s largest consumer of buttons, zippers and clips.
Nell would have Singer sewing machines modified to do the stitching that she needed. “The manufacturers at Singer would go, ‘Oh my God, we never thought of that’,” O’Malley says. “She probably gave away hundreds of potential patents.”
Although O’Malley has over eighty dresses and aprons in his collection, he has a hard time finding Nelly Don dresses made before the Great Depression. “During the Great Depression, women repurposed garments that were no longer functional as what they were originally for into things like pillowcases and rags,” he says.
In 1931, Nell and her chauffeur were abducted and held at ransom for seventy-five thousand dollars. Local mobster John Lazia saved her, and the kidnappers were arrested.
By 1934, Nelly Don had over 2,500 stores in the U.S., Canada, England and France. “She was one of the earliest tenants of the Empire State Building,” O’Malley says. “They had a showroom there for years.”
During WWII, Nell opened a nonprofit factory in St. Joseph specifically for war production to make GI garments, a la Rosie the Riveter.