From a Dream to a Legacy: Washington’s Famed Milliner

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Vanilla Beane celebrates her 100th birthday with her grandaughter Jeni Hansen at the National Museum of African American History

Sept. 13, 2019, is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable days of my life. On this day, my grandmother celebrated her 100th birthday. More remarkable than reaching this milestone is the fact that, at age 100, she is still designing hats at Bené Millinery, the small business she built, well, by hand.

Our family marked the occasion with a trip to the White House, a tea with the mayor and a trip to see her work at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A day like her hats, custom-made for a queen: Vanilla Beane.

What started as a hobby in the 1950s turned into a career for Beane, who in Washington’s African American churchgoing circles is affectionately known as “the hat lady.” She moved to D.C. from Wilson, North Carolina, in 1940, and found herself frequenting the Washington
Millinery Supply store while working as an elevator operator in the same downtown D.C. building.

When preparation met opportunity, my grandmother would have the opportunity not only to make hats, but to start a store of her own.

“They encouraged me when I would make something. And I finally got a job with them as a supply clerk. I would watch people … the different designers coming in buying supplies … and I learned by watching them.”

The owner of the store, Richard Dietrick Sr., not only encouraged the budding milliner when she brought in her homemade creations, he sold many of his supplies to her upon his retirement. This move gave Vanilla Beane the foundation to start a store of her own, and likely his encouragement helped her to become an entrepreneur at age 60. Forty years later, she is still putting in 48 hours a week at her craft.

A typical day involves a three-minute drive to the hat shop, and getting straight to work on a custom design. Give or take a few phone calls from friends and a lunch break or an errand, Vanilla Beane can be found in her sewing nook, chatting with a customer at the front counter or styling a hat to their head.

What’s remarkable to me is that my grandmother doesn’t follow the latest fashion trends. All of her designs are ones she thinks up, the intricate folds and layers made by techniques she practices and perfects.

Vanilla Beane’s designs can be found in museums, and even on a USPS stamp. In 1975, she was inducted into the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers Hall of Fame, and welcomed as the first recipient of the highest award given by the organization.

On her 100th birthday, one of my favorite moments was a trip to see her favorite hat on display — one of her own — at the NMAAHC. Known for designing hats for others, this one she made for herself. I could not be more proud of Vanilla Beane for having a dream, and honored that it turned not only into a reality, but also a legacy.

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