University Galleries, N.C. Museum of History to Host Costume Exhibition, “Made Especially for You by Willie Kay”

By Staff Report / 10/15/2021 College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (Oct. 15, 2021) – For nearly six decades, Willie Otey Kay transformed dreams into dresses for generations of Tar Heel brides, debutantes and partygoers. The esteemed Raleigh, North Carolina, designer overcame hardship and transcended racial boundaries to create a successful business.

Discover the woman behind the fashion in the exhibit “Made Especially for You by Willie Kay,” at the University Galleries at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The exhibit will run through Dec. 1, 2021.

“Our family is honored and deeply humbled by N.C. A&T’s decision to recognize and display the work and legacy of our grandmother in its University Galleries,” said Wanda Kay. “This tribute holds an even greater significance to us because her son, John W. Kay II, was an alumnus of the university, in addition to grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other descendants. We commend the university’s continued commitment to excellence, as it promotes the mission to advance knowledge through scholarly exchange and community engagement.”

The exhibit will showcase seven of her creations that include wedding gowns, formal dresses, and a baptismal ensemble. Without using commercial patterns, Kay crafted one-of-a-kind dresses for the women who commissioned them. She was in such demand that even prominent socialites worked around her schedule.

Born in 1894, Kay grew up in a large, loving family in Raleigh, where her father, Henry Otey, owned a barbershop. She graduated with a degree in home economics from Shaw University in 1912. There, she met medical student John Walcott Kay. The couple married in 1915 and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where John Kay practiced medicine before he died suddenly in 1927 at 37.

Willie Kay and her five children returned to her parents’ Raleigh home, where she started dressmaking as a means of support. Her sisters also were talented textile artists, and they helped her during busy periods. Mildred Otey Taylor and Chloe Otey Jervay Laws ran their own dressmaking businesses, and Elizabeth Otey Constant embellished the formal gowns with intricate beadwork. 

Kay’s clientele grew to include governors’ wives and a who’s who of North Carolina society — Black and white. Each year she made an equal number of dresses for the Alpha Kappa Alpha Ball (predominantly African American) and the North Carolina Debutante Ball (predominantly white). Kay’s renown spread beyond North Carolina’s borders, and her work was featured in national publications. Even as her status grew, the designer maintained her humility and charged only what she considered fair.

A sampling of exhibit items includes:

  • A wedding gown with matching veil. Carolyn Dorcas Maynor drew her own design for a satin gown with a 10-foot train. She brought the sketch to Willie Kay, who created the gown of Maynor’s dreams. The dress is embellished with glass and pearlized seed beads.
  • Second-night gown, satin adorned with sequins and rhinestones. Debutantes often needed formal attire for events other than the ball, and Louise Wooten donned the teal gown in 1954.
  • Mother-of-the-groom dress with matching clutch. Satin brocade with handcrafted cabbage roses. Doris Dosher wore the rose-colored dress to her son’s 1959 wedding at Raleigh’s First Baptist Church.
  • A baptismal ensemble, satin and cotton, embellished with cotton insertion lace, hand-tatted cotton lace, chiffon, and satin ribbon. Kay made the gown, matching coat and bonnet for the 1947 christening of her grandson, Ralph Campbell Jr.

Kay used the proceeds of her business to send all her children to college and to strengthen Raleigh’s African American community. She contributed to local universities, St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, the Links and other civic and educational organizations. The designer sewed well into her 90s and died in 1992 at 98.

“This partnership between the North Carolina Museum of History and the University Galleries to host this exhibition is an exciting opportunity for both museums,” said Paul Baker, Ph.D., director of the University Galleries.

The University Galleries are located in the Dudley Building, 202 University Circle, off East Market Street on the A&T campus. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and Saturday by appointment.  Exhibits are free and open to the public.

Editor's Note: The N.C. Museum of History and N.C. A&T staff contributed to this report

Media Contact Information: uncomm@ncat.edu

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