A Client-Centered Approach
Willie Otey Kay did not seek to create avant-garde fashion. Instead, she made figure-flattering formalwear that reflected the times. She designed what her clients wanted while tactfully guiding them toward sound choices.
Those who knew Kay described her as soft-spoken, gentle, and refined—personality traits that contributed to her business success. She could calm a nervous debutante and satisfy a demanding bride while inspiring confidence in the mother footing the bill.
“I enjoy it. You have to like what you do, no matter what it is, to make a success of it.”
—Willie Otey Kay
No one knew just how Willie Kay chose her clients, but she was in such demand that even the most prominent socialites worked around her schedule. Once granted an appointment, customers came to her home sewing room for consultations and measurements. Some knew exactly what they wanted. Others needed to look through the fashion magazines and drawings she kept handy. Despite her popularity, Kay never inflated her prices to retail rates. She charged only what she considered fair.
A cedar closet, built for Willie Kay by her son, John, shielded new dresses from customers’ curious eyes. When a woman came to see and try on her dress, Kay would remove it from the closet while carefully concealing other clients’ dresses. She practiced utmost discretion to ensure that designs remained secret until the wearer appeared in public.
Kay made this dress for Kate T. Webb, daughter of a prominent industrialist and state senator from Greensboro. Webb attended high school at Saint Mary’s in Raleigh, and her classmates and their families likely connected her with Kay in order to have this dress made.
None of the Otey women used commercial patterns. Though Willie Otey Kay had studied sewing at Shaw University, she preferred the intuitive style of construction that her grandmother and mother had taught her and her sisters.
Kay often began her custom designs with a sketch followed by a muslin or paper mock-up for fitting. Then she cut fabric to fit her vision. She sculpted the cloth on her dress form and machine-stitched the seams on her sturdy Singer. In collaboration with her sister Lizzie, who did the beading, Kay finished detail work by hand. Each dress was uniquely crafted for the woman who commissioned it.
“Sometimes I surprise myself. I may not know exactly what I’m going to do when I start out, but ideas come as I go along.”
—Willie Otey Kay
The Queen of Embellishment
Though fanciful lace appliqués and intricate beadwork were hallmarks of a Willie Kay gown, it was Kay’s sister Lizzie who created them. Elizabeth Otey Constant learned sewing along with her sisters, but she truly excelled at beadwork.
She worked not only with Willie Otey Kay but also with Mildred Otey Taylor and Chloe Otey Jervay Laws to embellish the dresses they made. Throughout the week she visited her sisters’ houses, often with the assistance of her granddaughter, and spent hours adding delicate pearls, rhinestones, and lace appliqués to gowns.
A Beaded Treasure
This antique handkerchief, which Elizabeth Otey Constant beaded for her granddaughter’s wedding, showcases her embellishment skills.
“It would take you forever to bead the laces to go on it.”
—Mildred Otey Taylor
Designing for Society
From governors’ wives to prominent socialites, Willie Kay’s clientele included a who’s who of North Carolina society. Customers sometimes brought Kay expensive fabric they had purchased abroad to have dresses made. One woman bought a gown in Europe, brought it to Kay to copy, and then returned the original dress overseas.
Despite her clients’ prestige, they worked around Kay’s schedule. As many as 50 to 60 young women and their mothers would seek a coveted appointment each year to have a debutante gown made. Less than half would ultimately be chosen to receive a dress due to Kay’s busy schedule.
In an era when many aspects of life in North Carolina were segregated, Willie Kay designed for both black and white clients. During her most active periods, she made an equal number of dresses for the Alpha Kappa Alpha Ball (predominantly African American) and the North Carolina Debutante Ball (predominantly white) to ensure equity. Her sisters also designed for clients across racial boundaries.
Though custom typically kept whites from visiting African Americans’ homes during the Jim Crow era, both white and black clients frequented Willie Kay’s home studio.
Willie Kay’s renown spread even beyond North Carolina’s borders. Synthia Teele, of Tallahassee, Florida, came to Raleigh to be fitted for both her cotillion dress in 1960 and her wedding gown in 1968–1969. Teele’s aunt Gila Harris, who lived near Kay and knew her socially, arranged the meeting.
Debutante affairs usually included multiple social functions. While young women almost always wore white gowns to the ball, they often needed additional formal attire for the other events. Louise Wooten wore this “second-night gown” to a Saturday night dance following her Friday night debut.
Carolyn Dorcas Maynor knew she wanted a grand dress for her wedding in Durham’s immense Duke Chapel, so she drew her own design for a satin gown with a 10-foot train. She brought the sketch to Willie Kay, who collaborated with Maynor to create the gown of her dreams.
Doris Dosher wore this gown to her son’s wedding at Raleigh’s First Baptist Church.
A Multigenerational Tradition
Many women so valued their Willie Kay dresses that they planned to use them more than once. Kay commonly altered debutante dresses into wedding gowns. Some families passed down Kay dresses for use at multiple functions by several generations of women.
Willie Kay made this dress (1) in 1967 for Elizabeth White’s debut. She altered it six years later for White’s 1973 marriage to John Converse (2). When the Converses’ daughter, Laura, debuted in 1995, a seamstress made her a new dress but applied the lace embellishments from Kay’s gown onto the new one (3). In 2002 she wore the gown for her wedding (4).
In 1952 Willie Kay made Carolyn Cheek Palmer’s wedding gown. Four years later, Carolyn’s sister, Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen, wore it at her own nuptials (1). Zevenhuizen’s cousin later wore the gown, as did her older daughter, Katie (2). Her daughter-in-law, Robin, donned it in 1986 (3), and her younger daughter, Eva, wore it in 1996 (4).