Dressmaker to Millions of American Women

Nell Quinlan (Donnelly) Reed to be inducted into Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

 

The Starr Women’s Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing extraordinary Kansas City women, preserving the history of their accomplishments and inspiring women everywhere. Nell Quinlan (Donnelly) Reed (1889-1991) is one of the outstanding women being honored in the 2019 class of inductees.

Reed established the Donnelly Garment Company in 1916 and for much of the 20th century it was the largest dress manufacturing company in the world — making more than 75 million dresses and employing 1,300 people for years in Kansas City. In an industry dominated by men, Reed succeeded by combining high quality design with state-of-the-art manufacturing technology at affordable prices. She was also a pioneer in employees’ rights and implemented many improvements in work conditions and compensation including air conditioning, life insurance and pension plans. Reed twice received the Navy-Army “E” Production Award for making service women’s uniforms during World War II.

“She lived a fabled life and were her incredible story not true, it would be hard to believe.”

-Terence Michael O’Malley, attorney, author and documentary filmmaker, great-great nephew of Reed

Generally credited with having invented the housedress, Reed was an innovator and the first to put a brand label in dresses, include extra buttons and deploy removable shoulder pads. The Donnelly Garment Company was one of the original tenants in the Empire State Building in New York and Reed the first woman in business in the United States to be a self-made millionaire.

“She essentially created daytime fashions for women by reinventing the housedress, taking it from a shapeless and cheap frock to a beautiful ensemble. Reed understood every aspect of her business, not just the design. She studied the textile industry and was the first to apply silk fabric design to American cotton and rayon,” says Mitchell J. DiCarlo, lifelong resident of Kansas City, Missouri.

This spring, “Nelly Don The Musical!” will chronicle Reed’s creativity, business acumen and personal travails at the Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center in Kansas City.

“In 1916, Reed created a fashion empire and became one of the wealthiest and most celebrated American women in business. She lived a fabled life and were her incredible story not true, it would be hard to believe,” says Terence Michael O’Malley, attorney, author and documentary filmmaker, great-great nephew of Reed.

About the Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

The Starr Women’s Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing extraordinary Kansas City women and preserving the history of their accomplishments. These women are social reformers, volunteers, philanthropists, civic leaders, activists and educators. They are neighborhood leaders and grassroots organizers, from yesterday and today, both famous and unsung. They are movers and shakers whose tireless commitment to community has made Kansas City a better place to live.

The Hall of Fame honors their legacies by sharing their stories to encourage and inspire women everywhere. A permanent display honoring these women is open to the public on the third floor of the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The Hall of Fame is named in honor of Martha Jane Phillips Starr, a legendary activist and philanthropist who blazed a trail for family issues and women’s rights. The Hall of Fame is made possible through the Starr Education Committee, Martha Jane Starr’s family and the Starr Field of Interest Fund through the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

Published: Mar 18, 2019

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