Whereas many art collections focus on ornamental, artistically interesting, and aesthetically pleasing clothing, the Costume Institute at Kansas City Museum holds items from all social circles, from ball gowns to everyday garments. This broad approach allows for historical and anthropological interpretation of materials to shed light on economic development, cultural origin, gender studies and different social roles.
Alice Nielsen, a turn-of-the-century Broadway musical star, was a Kansas City native. Near the time of her death in 1943, she donated many of her stage outfits to the Kansas City Museum. Three first ladies – Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman (an Independence, Missouri, native), and Betty Ford – are represented in the collection through dresses.
Nell Donnelly, a.k.a. Nelly Don, was a well-known character in KC, not only for her own garment manufacture company, but for being kidnapped for ransom as an adult, and for her marriage to presidential candidate Sen. James Reed. The Donnelly Garment Company, whose factory was housed at one point in the Western Auto building, made Kansas City the second-largest garment city in the nation during the 1950’s. Garments and oral histories from the company comprise a very “Kansas City” portion of the collection.