Past Times

Willie Otey Kay was queen of Raleigh fashion for decades

Willie Otey Kay, shown in a 1981 photograph, kept her dress form in her living room at her house on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh. Willie Otey Kay gowns were often passed down to daughters and granddaughters.
Willie Otey Kay, shown in a 1981 photograph, kept her dress form in her living room at her house on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh. Willie Otey Kay gowns were often passed down to daughters and granddaughters. News & Observer File Photo

For most of the 20th century, the height of fashion in Raleigh was a Willie Otey Kay original. In 1949, writer Coline Smith introduced readers to the popular dressmaker.

In the world of fashion, Willie Otey Kay is to Raleigh what Christian Dior is to Paris and Hattie Carnegie is to New York. For more than 23 years this original stylist has been designing and making dresses for brides and debutantes from all over the State.…

What today is a profession and thriving business began as a means of support for this middle-aged woman who was left a widow with five children when her husband, Dr. John Walcott Kay, died while practicing medicine in Wilmington. Willie Kay returned to Raleigh in 1926 to the house on Cabarrus Street in which she was born, and in which five generations of her family had lived.

Sewing was nothing new for this dressmaker wonder when she returned with her children. When she was graduated in 1912 from Shaw University, she was awarded first prize in dressmaking.…

The depression years hit the young widow particularly hard. Gradually she became known in most of the homes of Raleigh, especially those in which there were prospective brides and debutantes. The girls’ schools soon discovered her talent for that “special” dress and carried back to their home towns all over the State the word on the dress designer.…

She stays booked up at least six months ahead and the only part that’s sad, she added, was turning away girls from lack of time.…

Being a romantic herself, there is a special thrill in making clothes for the girl whose most exciting times are her debut and wedding.…

The neat room in which she works is filled with pictures of her children and some of her eight grandchildren. The entire house is one of memories for her. She and her six sisters and two brothers were born and raised in the two-story house. She was named for her grandfather, William Gaston Otey, who with her father operated the barber shop in the Yarborough Hotel, Raleigh’s finest hotel at the time. The N&O Aug. 27, 1949

Mrs. Kay’s daughter was the future June Kay Campbell, a local civil rights advocate along with husband Ralph and mother to former State Auditor Ralph Campbell and former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. In 2006, N&O writer Samantha Thompson Smith updated Willie Kay’s story.

To have one of her handcrafted dresses – for a prom, a debutante ball or a wedding – was considered a style score.

But getting one at the height of Kay’s popularity was harder than landing the latest Jacobs bag. Either you inherited one – which many women did from their mother or sister – or you sometimes waited a year or more for Kay to have the time to make one for you.…

Without ever using a pattern, Kay reigned in the region for nearly 60 years, creating hundreds of wedding gowns, bridesmaid dresses, christening gowns and party frocks often worn by wives and daughters of governors, senators, business leaders and society families – both black and white.

She was so good at her craft, some stores in Raleigh wouldn’t let her in for fear she would take one look at a dress and easily knock it off for one of her customers, says her granddaughter Mildred Campbell Christmas, who lives in Raleigh. One woman flew to Europe to buy a dress so that Kay could copy the style. Then she flew it back to Europe and returned it, Christmas says.…

Kay was 98 when she died in 1992. Those who knew her said she was patient and kind, creative and hardworking.…

Kay’s clothes were never mass produced, and you couldn’t buy one at a boutique. She advertised through word of mouth.

Part of Kay’s allure was that each dress was one-of-a-kind, and she never shared details about what another woman was having made. In fact, she had a walk-in cedar closet where she kept all the gowns she was working on, safely hidden from other women who came to her home to be fitted, Christmas said.

Each debutante season for years, 50 to 60 mothers and their daughters made appointments to see Kay.… Sometimes mothers would come years before a daughter’s deb ball. They all wanted her to make their daughters’ gown, but Kay never made more than 30 deb dresses a year – 15 for the white debs and 15 for the black debs.…

Later she would get to see those girls make their debut. Into the 1960s, she was the only black person invited to attend the white debutante balls at Memorial Auditorium – an invitation that was made at the insistence of her clients.…

When she was 87, she cut back, making gowns only for christenings, weddings and debutante balls. She stopped sewing when she was 90.

The N&O 12/18/2006

An exhibit of Willie Otey Kay’s designs will open at the North Carolina Museum of History in January. If you have a Kay dress carefully packed away, send us a photo to tleonard@newsobserver.com to post on the Past Times blog (newsobserver.com/past-times).

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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