RALEIGH — Before the days of Victoria’s Secret and online shopping, back when brides readied a trousseau rather than a registry at Williams Sonoma, women like Katharine Crowder were the ones pedaling romance and mystery when such things were still held sacred, and largely kept private.
For more than 40 years, Crowder outfitted the brides and wives of Raleigh with everything from undies to peignoir sets, bras to stockings and everything in between. She made the sheepish husband feel comfortable, reminded the older women they were entitled to romance, and taught the young coeds that some mystery could be a good thing.
Crowder died last month at the age of 97, after enjoying just 16 years of retirement.
She opened Katharine Crowder’s Intimate Shop in 1956, and she did so as a lone entrepreneur.
“At the time she did that there were no other stores dedicated to women’s lingerie and leisure wear in the Southeast,” that she was aware of, said her niece, Jo Dermid of Nashville. “There were not that many women in business that either didn’t have a husband behind them or a male relative that was helping them. And Katharine really didn’t have anyone.”
Crowder, along with her mother and two older brothers, moved to Raleigh from her family’s rural home place in Warren County when she was about 17, Dermid said. She soon had a job working at Taylor’s, Raleigh’s premier department store, which later became Ivey-Taylor’s and then Dillard’s.
This was a time when millinery was an essential element to women’s fashion, and as a Taylor’s employee she was not to be seen on the street of Raleigh without gloves, pantyhose, heels and often a hat, Dermid recalls. This was a value that Crowder would become known for – her friends and family cannot recall there ever being a time when she was not dressed and ready to receive company.
Crowder soon became a buyer for the entire first floor of the store, which included lingerie and leisurewear, and she would accompany Mr. Taylor on trips to New York City. She was eventually approached about opening her own shop in Brittan’s, a downtown shoe store with a mezzanine level ideal for a boutique.
Katharine Crowder’s Intimate Shop opened in 1956. It later settled in Cameron Village in 1967, which is where most people remember going to shop for decades.
“Aunt Katharine never forgot that women came in all shapes and sizes and in all ages,” Dermid said. Young coeds from Meredith College could find something trendy, perhaps made with more natural fabrics than their counterparts, older women who were used to more formal intimate apparel. “She never forgot the spectrum of her market.”
‘Smell the roses’
Crowder never married, and as such Dermid became like a daughter to her.
“My mother very generously shared me with Aunt Katharine,” Dermid said, and for that she is grateful. For it was Aunt Katharine who taught her to “smell the roses.”
Crowder understood how special such garments could be to a woman. For example, her niece can recall in explicit detail a robe Aunt Katharine helped her pick out in 1969, which she wore to the first opera to come to Winston-Salem – “Aida.” It was tangerine in color and made of bengaline fabric, lined in silk, with three-quarter sleeves and an empire waist that was anchored with rhinestone buttons. It fell into an A-line skirt.
Crowder was also expert at helping the weary husband find the perfect gift.
The man who dare not set foot into a women’s lingerie store could call Crowder directly. After answering her questions about his wife’s style, size and preferences, he could simply come pick up a wrapped package to present to his wife later that night. She always kept the sizes and style preferences of her clients on file.
Smedes York, whose father founded Cameron Village and whose company still manages the property, was a regular shopper there.
“I would brace myself and go in there,” he said with a chuckle. But it would prove a pleasant experience. “That was the key – she made everyone feel comfortable. I know she made me feel comfortable.”
Still, it was mostly the women of Raleigh who made Katharine Crowder’s their go-to place for not just lingerie, but for the making of memories.
“If you were a bride in Raleigh or Wake County, more than likely your mother took you to buy your lingerie at Katharine Crowder’s Intimate Shop,” said Boo Knuckley Jefferson of Kannon’s Clothing, a boutique near Crowder’s shop in Cameron Village. “It was an experience.”
Snuggling in the robe
When Jefferson learned about Crowder’s death, that night she went home and pulled out a robe she had purchased from the shop back in 1996, right after her youngest daughter was born.
“I came home that night and just snuggled in that robe,” Jefferson said, remembering the graciousness of a woman she considered a “pioneer” in the business world.
Her niece and two great-nieces are just now having to purchase things like bras and robes for the first time since 1997, when Crowder retired. She liquidated her merchandise, and many pieces went to close friends and family.
She always did believe in quality.