Nelly Don

Ever heard of Nelly Don? I didn’t think so. I was going to save this for News From You but decided it was too interesting, inspirational and hilarious to hold off. This comes from an interview with her great great nephew who filmed a documentary about her. It’s the story of the first self-made female millionaire in the US. Nelly Don designed and sold more dresses in the 20th century than any other single person in the United States.

Terence O’Malley: Nelly Don is my great, great aunt. She was royalty in our family. Consider that she started what became the largest dress manufacturing company in the world before women even had the right to vote. From 1916 to 1978 Nelly Don made 75 million dresses, making her one of the most important dress designers of the 20th century.

I always knew Nell’s story was special, but it was fading into obscurity. I felt a need to rescue it and tell it honestly. I am the first to publicly report that Nell and former U.S. presidential candidate Sen. James A. Reed (D-MO) had an affair and produced a child. My film is also the first complete telling of Nell’s kidnapping and her subsequent rescue by the Kansas City Mafia. But it is the woman herself that makes the movie; Nell was a benevolent genius and her national contributions are important to recognize.

For instance, Nell made most of the clothing for women in military service in WWII, but she refused to be a war profiteer and never took a profit from government contracts.

More on Nelly Don including film clips is here. There’s a book and a DVD, both are $25.

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  1. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    If she made that many dresses, why don’t we all know about her and why isn’t she mentioned in any books about 20th C. fashion or fashion design school textbooks??????? ARGH!!!!

  2. Sue Melin says:

    Yes, Ilive in the Kansas City area, and I saw this documentary on the public broadcasting station (PBS). It was excellent.

    Besides taking the dull existence of the average housewife to new heights with her fashionable line of housedresses, Nelly also elevated the status of her seamstresses by providing them with many perks, bonuses and opportunities for advancement. She always had her employees good at heart, which is evidenced by her generous treatment of them. She gave them access to all slightly imperfect garments “at cost” and freely gave them any and all of her fabric remnants.
    And, as if that weren’t enough, in all of the history of her business, she only dismissed one employee. Nelly Don’s business succeeded because she treated her workers as well as her customers right.

  3. Mary Dement says:

    I saw a documentary on your aunt sat. Feb. 2, 2008 and was totally envolved in it. Her fabric was absolutly beautiful. I am wondering if you have duplicated her prints?? I would love to purchase any available. Mary Dement , Missoula MT

  4. Donna says:

    I believe we have a photo album of Nelly Don, the Senator and it may be their children. Please contact me so I can send you further information.

  5. jill says:

    hi, im trying to find vintge clothing of nelly dons but im having no luck. there doesnt seem to be alot on the internet. im surprized at that. i would like to know were to find any clothing, material and patterns(if possible). thank yo uvery much. jill

  6. Frank Horn says:

    She was an American original, who definitely would not approve of the USA of our times! God bless her whole family!

  7. andi mae nez says:

    i watched part of the documentary “a stitch in time”.it was very intersesting to,mainly because she was just a good person.there’s not many ladys i known who have done great things………

  8. The Historic Costume and Textiles Museum at Kansas State University currently has an exhibit of Nelly Don dresses mounted in our gallery on campus. This is our second exhibit of her dresses; we have been fortunate to add to our collection recently, one being a Handy Dandy Apron that kept ND in business through the depression. Our curator has been working with Terrence O’Malley in trying to preserve ND records, designs and story by building a special ND archive here. If anyone has information or artifacts you wish to share or contribute, please contact our museum at 785-532-1328 or our curator, Marla Day at

  9. Benita Holder says:

    I have two eighth grade female students researching Nelly Don to do a skit entry in Kansas’ History Day Competition on Feb. 28th, 2009. Where could we find a pattern to make one of Nelly’s Handy Dandy Apron?
    Thanks, Benita Holder
    913-993-1240 voicemail
    Westridge Middle School
    9300 Nieman Road
    Lenexa, KS 66214
    913-993-1200 school phone

  10. Mia Whang says:

    I am a doctoral student at Kansas State University, and am researching Nelly Don for my dissertation. Nelly Don’s story and her dresses fascinated me when I saw the Nelly Don exhibited by the Kansas State University Historic Costume and Textiles Museum at K-State University. Although there are many possible research topics related to the Nelly Don, because of time constraint and limiting of the scope of the study, I have decided to focus on the fabrics and prints that were used in Nelly Don’s dresses in the 20s through 40s or until 50s. So I need to collect as many data as possible to examine what the key elements of the fabrics and print designs that contributed to the success of the Nelly Don dresses.
    If anyone has Nelly Don artifacts or any information related to Nelly Don, Please contact me at or Thank you very much!

  11. Kelly says:

    I just found out that my step fathers mother worked for Nelly Don for years as a stitcher. I never knew her, but I am glad that here work history has lead me to find Nelly Don!

    Thanks for sharing this info!

  12. Vicki Bryson says:

    My mother, Fayetta Eileen Murphy, from Mt. Vernon, Illinois won two national championship competitions from Nellie Don. Through 4-H Nellie Don had a competiton for dress designing. Who ever had the design that won, their design was placed in the fall, winter, spring or summer line of clothing manufactured that year. I have tried to find out more information abou that especially because of my mother. I would love to hear from you.

  13. Ferolyn says:

    I had the privilege of caring for Mrs. Reed as a private duty nurse in the 1980’s. She was in her mid 90’s at the time. I learned so much from her while she told me stories about her life. She even told me about her kidnapping. Her massaive apartment on the Country Club Plaza was like walking into a museum! She had a hall way lined with political cartoon drawings of her husband (Sen. James A. Reed), a table holding all sorts of political lapel pins, ribbons, and other memorabilia. A dining table disigned by Chippendale himself. She was such an interesting person and I was blessed that I was allowed to care for her.

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