Black Wide-Awake mourns the passing of Vanilla Powell Beane, Wilson native, Washington, D.C., legend, and milliner extraordinaire. Her 103 years of life were exceptionally well-lived, and the world so much richer for her talents.
Vanilla Beane, the District’s ‘Hat Lady,’ dies at 103.
By Michael Rosenwald, The Washington Times, 25 October 2022.
Mrs. Beane’s hats, which she had designed and fabricated at the Bené Millinery and Bridal Supplies shop on Third Street NW, were featured on postage stamps and in collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Every hat was one-of-a-kind.
“Nobody wants to walk into a church and see someone else wearing their hat,” she once said.
Poet Maya Angelou wore one of Mrs. Beane’s millinery creations. Civil rights activist Dorothy I. Height donned them for meetings with presidents and other officials. “Hats give me a lift and make me feel real special,” Height explained — a sentiment shared by the countless others who shopped at Mrs. Beane’s store.
Mrs. Beane worked six days a week into her 100th year.
“Some people like real fussy hats,” she told The Washington Post in 2009. “Others like sophisticated hats, and a lot of people like simple hats. I try to please people regardless of their race or background.”
Mrs. Beane made her hats the old-fashioned way, wetting buckram — a stiff cotton — into molds decorated with all manner of fabrics. Keeping her fingernails cut short, Mr. Beane made tams, turbans, panamas, sailors and cloches. Decades of the repetitive fashioning turned her fingers stiff and rough.
“They look like I have been digging potatoes,” she said.
Vanilla Powell was born in Wilson, N.C., on Sept. 13, 1919, the second youngest of nine siblings. Her father was a carpenter and farmer, and her mother was a seamstress who also worked in White people’s homes washing their clothes.
Growing up during the Depression instilled a robust work ethic in the Powell children, who worked in the fields picking tobacco and cotton. On Sundays, they rested and walked to Sandy Point Baptist Church, where women sat in the pews wearing fancy hats.
“In the past, when most Blacks had blue-collar jobs, dressing up on Sundays was a cherished ritual,” Craig Marberry, co-author of “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” said in a 2019 story about Mrs. Beane in The Post. “The hat tradition grew out of the idea that you were expressing how God has blessed you. The more flamboyant a hat, the more God has blessed you.”
After graduating from [C.H. Darden] high school in 1940, Vanilla Powell moved to Washington and two years later married Willie Beane Sr., producing the name that endlessly charmed her customers and friends, though it took her a little bit to realize its novelty.
“I was in the drugstore and the pharmacy said, ‘Do you know there is a Vanilla Beane?’” she recalled in a television interview in 2020. “I said I guess it was meant to be.”
In Washington, Mrs. Beane worked as an elevator operator in a downtown building with a hat store called Washington Millinery Supply. She was enamored by the intricate hats and the craft of making them, so she bought some supplies and began making them herself.
Eventually she showed her hats to the store’s owner, Richard Dietrick Sr. “She had very much talent, but she didn’t have the design know-how in those days,” Dietrick recalled later. “She picked it up very quickly.”
Mrs. Beane eventually began working for him, and when he moved his shop to Gaithersburg, Md., she bought his supplies and, in 1979, opened her own store. She was a shrewd businesswoman, convincing Ethel Sanders, the owner of Lovely Lady Boutique in Bethesda, Md., to move her store near Bené Millinery.
“People knew us as a team,” Sanders recalled in 2019. “Women would come in for a dress and I’d send them to Vanilla for a hat. Or they’d go for a hat and she’d send them to me for an outfit.”
Mrs. Beane’s shop had White customers, as well. One of them was Sherry Watkins, who founded the Rogue Hatters, a group of women who collected Mrs. Beane’s hats. Watkins owned 75.
Mrs. Beane taught them the rules of hat wearing.
“Don’t match the hat to the outfit,” Watkins recalled. “Just buy a hat you like and the outfit will come. Never wear your hat more than one inch above your eyebrows. Slant it to look more interesting and possibly even risque.”
Mrs. Beane seemed to never get designer’s block. Her designs constantly evolved.
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of Mrs. Beane’s hats is green velveteen.
“The hat is circular with a rounded peak and constructed by layering a strip of fabric over itself in a wrapped design,” the museum’s description says. “The base of the fabric is a light green while the pile is a darker green, giving the hat a two-tone appearance.”
Another is a red felt bicorn style.
“The hat is composed of a single piece of stiff felt that has been folded up at the center front,” the museum notes. “The dome of the hat is cylindrical, with the raised brim attached at the top of the crown. There are red felt bows affixed at the attachment points.”
Mrs. Beane’s husband died in 1993. Their son, Willie G. Beane Jr., died in 1980. Ms. Beane is survived by two daughters, Margaret L. Seymour of Charleston, S.C., and Linda R. Jefferson of the District; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Beane was such a fixture of Washington that then-Fox News host Chris Wallace named her “Power Player of the Week” in the summer of 2020.
Wallace asked her what made a proper church hat.
“Well,” she answered, “any hat that’s not too fancy, not too wide.”
The host marveled at her longevity.
“In these challenging times,” Wallace said, “it’s nice to know there are still some constants in the world, like Vanilla Beane.”
Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.