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Willie Otey Kay

Sewing Dreams into Dresses

Strolling toward the courtyard entrance off Jones Street to the N. C. Museum of History in downtown Raleigh is reminiscent of window shopping a formal-wear store front. Just inside the museum’s glass windows, is a showroom of wedding gowns and other formal dresses. They’re roped off and stately positioned, but there’s no light on.

Look closer to learn it’s actually “Made Especially for You by Willie Kay,” an expansive, interactive exhibit of the life, work and legacy of renowned dressmaker Willie Otey Kay, a Raleigh native and Shaw University Class of 1912 graduate known to sew “dreams into dresses.” The showroom is a bonus display unveiled August 22 in the cul-de-sac –like corner of the museum, left unlighted to protect the delicacy of the garments’ textiles and colors.

The exhibit ends September 6.

Made Especially for You features well-preserved wedding, debutante and party dresses, as well as religious attire for babies to priests. There’s the 1948 Duchesse satin wedding dress with a 10-foot-train; debutante ball and party gowns; red Episcopal vestments still worn by clergy at Kay’s home church, St. Ambrose Episcopal; a photograph of a Tallahassee, Fla., bride and her bridesmaids wearing dresses made by Kay; and the baptismal gown of Ralph Campbell, Jr., Kay’s grandson, who became North Carolina’s first African American state auditor; a mother-of-the-bride ensemble; and so on. The exhibit also tells the story of a woman from a family of prominent Raleigh activists in the 60s and 70s who was herself best described as “soft-spoken, gentle and refined;” whose sewing skills required no commercial patterns, only intuition; and whose ability to create “figure-flattering formal wear that reflected the times” transcended segregation as it was sought by black and white people alike.

Kay’s business spanned over six decades – she sewed into her 90s – and reached heights of a McCall’s magazine feature in 1935, and one of her debutante gowns landing on the cover of Life magazine in 1951.

“She was creative, talented and passionate,” said Roselyn Egan, a Raleigh resident visiting the museum exhibit with husband, Gregory.” You would need those qualities to have kept it going as she did; amazing. Really amazing.”

The oldest of five children of Josephine and Henry Otey, a barbershop owner, Kay grew up on Cabarrus Street, where her mother and grandmother, both accomplished seamstresses, taught her and her sisters how to sew.

By the time Kay earned a degree from Shaw University in home economics, she had won First Place in the school’s dressmaking competition. She also met the man she married in 1915, John Walcott Kay, a graduate of Shaw’s Leonard School of Medicine who went on to become the co-founder of Community Hospital in Wilmington. A few years later, at 37, Dr. Kay died suddenly, leaving his wife with five young children.

Reared in the era of Black Wall Street, Kay’s focus turned to entrepreneurship, and she and the children returned to Raleigh to live with her parents. In Kay’s words, prominently displayed in the exhibit: “After his death, I was nearly crazy, but…I remembered that I majored at Shaw in Home Economitry. And it came to me that that’s what I could do, start dressmaking.”

The legacy already was building among the Otey sisters, described as “inseparable, determined and talented.” Sisters Mildred Otey Taylor and Chloe Otey Jervay Laws had dressmaking businesses, while sister, Elizabeth Otey Constant was an expert beader, embellishing dresses made by her sisters.  Another Otey sister living in Atlantic City, Josephine Otey Hayes, specialized in sewing children’s clothes. As quoted in the exhibit, Mildred Otey Taylor said, “We would work together sometimes. If one of us got in a tight place, the other would help out.”

Kay used the money she made to send each of her six children to college at Shaw, give back to her alma mater in other ways as a successful business woman, and contribute to other educational and civic organizations in the community.