Embodying Black Elegance: Vanilla Beane (1919-2022)
By October 27, 2022 0 1600•
Vanilla Beane, known as “D.C.’s Hat Lady,” died October 23 at a Washington, D.C., hospital at the age of 103. While her name alone preceded her, Beane’s life was as spectacular and colorful as the hats she donned for over a century.
Beane was born in Wilson, North Carolina, on Sept. 13, 1919. She was the eighth of nine siblings to a carpenter/farmer father and seamstress mother. Beane attended a one-room school house as a child and grew up during the Great Depression, which instilled a strong work ethic in the family. They worked in the fields picking tobacco and cotton during the week and on Sundays, they walked to Sandy Point Baptist Church. In church, of course, women wore their Sunday best — and their fanciest Church Hats.
According to Craig Marberry, co-author of “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” the hat tradition grew from the idea that people were expressing how much God has blessed them. The more flamboyant or extravagant the hat, the more you were blessed by God.
“In the past, when most Blacks had blue-collar jobs, dressing up on Sundays was a cherished ritual,” Marberry said in a 2019 story about Beane for the Washington Post.
After graduating from high school in 1940, Vanilla Powell moved to Washington, D.C., and married William Beane, Sr. The name Vanilla Beane was born — talk about a love that’s meant to be!
Beane’s hats were designed and fabricated at a Third St. NW shop called “Bené Millinery and Bridal Supplies.” They were featured on postage stamps and in collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Every hat was one-of-a-kind, as Beane would say “nobody wants to walk into a church and see someone else wearing their hat.”
Even poet Maya Angelou wore one of Beane’s designs. Civil rights activist Dorothy Height was also spotted wearing them for meetings with high-profile officials.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gave a statement on Beane’s passing, saying: “Combining grace, elegance and longevity, Ms. Vanilla Beane embodied Black excellence. Her talents have been on display in our city since I was just a little girl. No matter the occasion or the outfit, whether she was designing for a neighbor or a civil rights icon like Dorothy Height, Ms. Beane always knew how to make the perfect hat.” Beane was a “mother, a grandmother, and a great grandmother. She was an inspiration for generations of Black women and for anyone who ever thought about turning their talent into a business that you love so much you stay at it into your hundreds…. We will miss your beautiful soul and the beauty you brought to this world. Today, we send our love and prayers to Ms. Beane’s family and all who will miss her.”
The Georgetowner published a piece by Beane’s granddaughter Jeni Hansen in October 2019 in honor of Vanilla’s 100th birthday. Here is an excerpt from it:
“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.”
May we all lead as unique, remarkable and hard-working of a life as Mrs. Vanilla Beane did.