Building a Business

A Client-Centered Approach

Willie Kay fits a client in her home sewing room, ca. 1975–1980. Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr.
Willie Kay fits a client in her home sewing room, ca. 1975–1980.
Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr.

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

                                                                              The Consultation

This canceled check shows what a client paid for a debutante dress in 1954. Courtesy of Mrs. Louise Wooten Talley
This canceled check shows what a client paid for a debutante dress in 1954.
Museum Collection.

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.

Kay’s final product closely resembled Atkinson’s vision. Museum Collection. Courtesy of Mrs. Sharron R. Atkinson
Kay’s final product closely resembled Atkinson’s vision.
Museum Collection.
Courtesy of Mrs. Sharron R. Atkinson.
Some clients knew precisely what they wanted. Sharron Atkinson brought Willie Otey Kay this sketch she had made of her dream wedding dress. Courtesy of Mrs. Sharron R. Atkinson
Some clients knew precisely what they wanted. Sharron Atkinson brought Willie Otey Kay this sketch she had made of her dream wedding dress.
Courtesy of Mrs. Sharron R. Atkinson.
Kay kept in touch with her clients during the dressmaking process. In this 1971 letter, she informs a debutante’s mother of her efforts to incorporate the family’s heirloom antique lace into a new gown. She also provided a description of the dress for the newspaper. Courtesy of Mrs. Christine Roeder
Kay kept in touch with her clients during the dressmaking process. In this 1971 letter, she informs a debutante’s mother of her efforts to incorporate the family’s heirloom antique lace into a new gown. She also provided a description of the dress for the newspaper.
Courtesy of Mrs. Christine Roeder.

The Reveal

Rose Elaine Curtis tries on her wedding ensemble in Willie Kay’s home. Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr. / Copyright Count Hayes Photography, Raleigh
Rose Elaine Curtis tries on her wedding ensemble in Willie Kay’s home.
Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr. / Copyright Count Hayes Photography, Raleigh.

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.

Willie Kay straightens the train on Marion White’s dress prior to her 1968 wedding ceremony. The Whites and the Kays attended church together and were family friends. Kay designed White’s 1965 debutante dress, which she later altered into a wedding gown. Courtesy of Ms. Marion W. Jervay
Willie Kay straightens the train on Marion White’s dress prior to her 1968 wedding ceremony. The Whites and the Kays attended church together and were family friends. Kay designed White’s 1965 debutante dress, which she later altered into a wedding gown.
Courtesy of Ms. Marion W. Jervay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Party dress, Alençon-style lace, nylon tulle, and satin acetate, 1955. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Kate T. Webb. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with sequins and beads. Museum Collection
Party dress, Alençon-style lace, nylon tulle, and satin acetate, 1955. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Kate T. Webb. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with sequins and beads.
Museum Collection.
Willie Kay crafted full satin streamers to embellish the back of this dress.
Museum Collection.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Willie Kay finishes a gown on her dress form, 1974. Courtesy of The News & Observer of Raleigh
Willie Kay finishes a gown on her dress form, 1974.
Courtesy of The News & Observer of Raleigh.

                                            Techniques

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.

Kay often sketched her ideas before beginning a new project. She preserved this drawing in her photo album Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr.
Kay often sketched her ideas before beginning a new project. She preserved this drawing in her photo album
Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr.

 

 

 

“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

Elizabeth Otey Constant, ca. 1930–1940. Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis
Elizabeth Otey Constant, ca. 1930–1940.
Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis.

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.

 

Handkerchief, ca. 1800–1850; beading, 1977. Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis
Handkerchief, ca. 1800–1850; beading, 1977.
Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis.

“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.

Historically a young woman’s debut was a public announcement of her eligibility to marry. Here, participants in the 1967 North Carolina Debutante Ball perform the traditional cartwheel dance. Willie Kay designed for clients who had the means and status to participate in such functions. Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse
Historically a young woman’s debut was a public announcement of her eligibility to marry. Here, participants in the 1967 North Carolina Debutante Ball perform the traditional cartwheel dance. Willie Kay designed for clients who had the means and status to participate in such functions.
Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse.

Intentional Inclusion

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 made sure that black and white women, like these two debutantes, had access to her designs. Left: Courtesy of Natalie Wilson Perkins Right: Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr. / Copyright Cotswold Photography, Charlotte
Willie Kay made sure that black and white women, like these two debutantes, had access to her designs.
Left: Courtesy of Natalie Wilson Perkins
Right: Courtesy of Mr. Ralph Campbell Jr. / Copyright Cotswold Photography, Charlotte.

 

Wedding gown, satin acetate and nylon lace with rayon overlay, 1969. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Synthia Teele. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with bugle beads and sequins. Courtesy of Synthia Teele Roberson, MD
Wedding gown, satin acetate and nylon lace with rayon overlay, 1969. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Synthia Teele. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with bugle beads and sequins.
Courtesy of Synthia Teele Roberson, MD.

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.

Willie Kay designed the gown for Synthia Teele’s April 5, 1969, wedding. Kay also made Teele’s bridesmaids’ dresses. Because the women lived out of state, Kay worked strictly from measurements. The women did not try on the gowns until shortly before the ceremony. Courtesy of Synthia Teele Roberson, MD
Willie Kay designed the gown for Synthia Teele’s April 5, 1969, wedding. Kay also made Teele’s bridesmaids’ dresses. Because the women lived out of state, Kay worked strictly from measurements. The women did not try on the gowns until shortly before the ceremony.
Courtesy of Synthia Teele Roberson, MD.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second-night gown, satin acetate shot, 1954. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Louise Wooten. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with sequins and rhinestones. Museum Collection
Second-night gown, satin acetate shot, 1954. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Louise Wooten. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with sequins and rhinestones.
Museum Collection.

 

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.

Louise Wooten donned this teal gown in 1954. Courtesy of Mrs. Louise Wooten Talley
Louise Wooten donned this teal gown in 1954.
Courtesy of Mrs. Louise Wooten Talley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wedding gown with matching veil, Duchesse satin acetate and nylon tulle, 1948. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Carolyn Dorcas Maynor. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with glass and pearlized seed beads. Museum Collection
Wedding gown with matching veil, Duchesse satin acetate and nylon tulle, 1948. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Carolyn Dorcas Maynor. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with glass and pearlized seed beads.
Museum Collection.

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.

Carolyn Dorcas Maynor wore this dress for her marriage to Ray Bucher Jr. on March 20, 1948. Courtesy of Mrs. Dorcas M. Bucher
Carolyn Dorcas Maynor wore this dress for her marriage to Ray Bucher Jr. on March 20, 1948.
Courtesy of Mrs. Dorcas M. Bucher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother-of-the-groom dress, satin acetate brocade with handcrafted cabbage roses and flora, 1959. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Doris Dosher. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with rhinestones and bugle beads. Museum Collection
Mother-of-the-groom dress, satin acetate brocade with handcrafted cabbage roses and flora, 1959. Made by Willie Otey Kay for Doris Dosher. Embellished by Elizabeth Otey Constant with rhinestones and bugle beads.
Museum Collection.
Doris Dosher (far right) celebrates with her son and daughter-in-law, Richard and Martha Barber Dosher, and the bride’s parents, Marshal and Maude Barber. Courtesy of Ms. Martha Barber Dosher
Doris Dosher (far right) celebrates with her son and daughter-in-law, Richard and Martha Barber Dosher, and the bride’s parents, Marshal and Maude Barber.
Courtesy of Ms. Martha Barber Dosher.

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.

(1) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Copyright Burnie Batchelor Studio, Raleigh, NC; (2) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Copyright Burnie Batchelor Studio, Raleigh, NC; (3) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Copyright Arthur Greenburg, 1995; (4) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Image by Marty Allen, Apex, NC
(1) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Copyright Burnie Batchelor Studio, Raleigh, NC; (2) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Copyright Burnie Batchelor Studio, Raleigh, NC; (3) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Copyright Arthur Greenburg, 1995; (4) Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Converse / Image by Marty Allen, Apex, NC

 

 

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).

 

(1) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen / Copyright Burnie Batchelor Studio, Raleigh, NC; (2) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen / Courtesy of Wendell Powell, Richmond, VA; (3) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen / Courtesy of Wendell Powell, Richmond, VA; (4) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen
(1) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen / Copyright Burnie Batchelor Studio, Raleigh, NC; (2) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen / Courtesy of Wendell Powell, Richmond, VA; (3) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen / Courtesy of Wendell Powell, Richmond, VA; (4) Courtesy of Mrs. Cathryn Cheek Zevenhuizen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

←A Family Affair                                                                                               A Community Leader →     


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