For decades’ worth of debutante dresses, there was one designer’s work that upper-crust families in Raleigh sought above all others.
It wasn’t Dior or Balenciaga or anyone who ever appeared in the pages of Vogue. It was Willie Otey Kay, an African-American seamstress who turned to dressmaking to support her family after her husband’s death and ended up building a booming business that allowed elegance to triumph over racial barriers.
This month, the N.C. Museum of History opens an exhibit honoring Kay and telling her story – a story of satin and silk but also of strength and skill that wove Kay and her family into the history of many Raleigh families and the city itself.
Ten of Kay’s dresses will be on display, with more shown in three short-term bonus displays that will augment the exhibit until its closing in September. Most of the dresses will be displayed with photos showing them on their original owners, a window into the styles of the times. Along the way, visitors will learn about Kay’s family, how she built her business and went about her work, and her involvement in the community.
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They’ll learn about her upbringing as part of an affluent family in Raleigh and her graduation from Shaw University in 1912 with a degree in home economics. The skills she learned there became a matter of livelihood when her husband, a doctor, died at age 37, leaving her five children to support. Kay returned to her family’s home and launched a dressmaking business that spread through word of mouth.
“She built a clientele that sort of transcended the racial boundaries of the Jim Crow era,” said Diana Bell-Kite, the exhibit’s curator. Each year, Kay would work on dresses for an equal number of black and white debutantes, and dresses bearing her “Made Especially for You by Willie Kay” label were sought after by families of both communities.
Kay’s gowns were known for their quality and beauty – one didn’t have to see that label to recognize her work. But she had a keen eye for current fashion, and she knew what would flatter a girl’s figure and fancy.
“Each dress was unique,” Bell-Kite explained. “She made each dress for the client who she was working with, so she didn’t mass produce anything. It was based on a consultation with that person. They would look at fashion magazines together … they had an idea of what they wanted – or maybe they didn’t and she sort of led them in the right direction. But each dress was individually crafted, and that’s come through in so many of the conversations I’ve had with former clients.”
A family story
To keep up with the demand, Kay learned to work quickly, Bell-Kite said, and she had help from her sisters, several of whom had dressmaking businesses as well.
“It’s very much a family story as well as her individual story,” said Bell-Kite.
Elizabeth Lewis of Raleigh is the granddaughter of Elizabeth Otey Constant, who added intricate beading to many of Kay’s dresses. From a young age, Lewis would accompany her grandmother every day to “Aunt Willie’s” house, where Constant would bead “all day long.” (Lewis has continued the family trade, and will give a beading demonstration at the museum Aug. 13.)
Lewis remembers the sisters – elegant women who paused for lunch on china and crystal, who never wore pants and never went without their pearls – laughing and talking as they worked.
“The sisters were a very close-knit group of women,” Lewis said. “They were there in good times and in bad times, through tragedies – they were there for one another.”
Kay’s work received national attention, and she used her success to send all her children to college and to help causes that were important to her, including Shaw and St. Augustine’s University, her church and organizations that strengthened Raleigh’s African-American community. (Her contributions nurtured a family tradition of service. One grandson was state auditor Ralph Campbell Jr., the first African-American person elected to state office in North Carolina, and another was Bill Campbell, who was mayor of Atlanta.)
But when she was working with a client, the young woman (and, surely in most cases, the mother) was her main concern.
‘A big deal’
Bennett Cotten of Raleigh remembers going to “Mrs. Kay’s” home on New Bern Avenue for the making of a dress that was “a big deal,” as she describes it now: it was intended to be worn for her 1967 debutante ball and then her younger sister’s ball the following year. After some alterations, both women later wore the dress in their weddings.
Cotten remembers Kay as “businesslike,” but with “a grandmotherly, kind face.”
“She was friendly, but clearly a very busy person who wanted to design a dress that was respectful of my mother’s vision, but also had very clear ideas of what would look good and what she wanted to do,” Cotten said. “She also took into account the other dresses she was making and made sure people were getting something that was unique.”
Cotten, at 19, was content to leave the design of the dress, which used lace her grandmother had purchased in Belgium, to her mother and Kay, but the experience of getting it made has stuck with her.
“It felt very exotic to be in her place, where she was designing and making this dress just for me,” she said. “It was far beyond my usual experience.”
Kay brought people together
The experiences of many of Kay’s clients – from regular girls, both white and black, to governors’ wives – will be told in oral histories in an interactive component of the museum’s exhibit. During the exhibit, the museum will also host programs that highlight the role of fashion and related businesses in Raleigh, including crafts for kids and a lecture by “Project Runway” finalist and N.C. State design professor Justin LeBlanc on the intersection of technology, textiles and fashion.
Kay continued sewing into her 90s, leaving a legacy of family heirlooms and treasured memories for countless Raleigh families before she died in 1992 at age 98.
“Willie Kay is someone who in a very quiet way did something pretty incredible,” said curator Bell-Kite. “During a period when our society was segregated, she, as an African-American woman, was able to bridge some divisions. She was someone who, through her skill and her talent and her character and her personality, was able to become a successful businesswoman against the odds and become one of the most, if not the most, prominent dressmaker in the state and was able to take that success and use it to help her community. It’s a type of story that often gets overlooked but is just an incredible instance of how one person was able to bring people together.”
“Made Especially for You by Willie Kay” will open Jan. 16 and run through Sept. 5 at the N.C. Museum of History in downtown Raleigh. The free exhibit will feature bonus displays Jan. 16-20, March 12-17 and June 2-9.
For more information, including a schedule of special events and programs, call the museum at 919-807-7900 or visit ncmuseumofhistory.org.