Vanilla Beane, D.C.'s Famous "Hat Lady," Dead At 103

The North Carolina-native’s hat shop has been a D.C. staple since 1979.

Vanilla Beane
Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Vanilla Beane, Washington D.C.'s famous "hat lady," has died at the age of 103. The Washington Post reports that she died at a local hospital Sunday due to complications after an aortic tear.

Beane was a D.C. legend known for her millinery creations. Her store, Bené Millinery & Bridal Supplies, has been a staple of the Manor Park neighborhood since it opened in 1979. She worked there six days a week well into her 100s.

Born in 1919 in Wilson, North Carolina, she was the sixth of seven children born to sharecroppers Martha and James Powell. In 1942 Beane moved to D.C. with her older sisters. It was while she was working as an elevator operator that housed Washington Millinery & Supply Co. that she was inspired to try her hand at making hats.

Vanilla Beane
Courtesy of Jeni Hansen

Beane recalled her first hat—a simple buckram frame she covered in fabric—in a 2019 interview with Southern Living. With encouragement from the owner of the shop, Beane kept making hats and eventually landed a job there. "That helped me quite a bit," she said of her time at Washington Millinery Supply. "I would watch the people coming in and how they selected materials and see the styles they selected, so that's how I got started."

Vanilla Beane and granddaughter Jeni Hansen
Courtesy of Jeni Hansen

By 1979, when she opened Bené Millinery & Bridal Supplies on Third Street NW, she was a master of her craft.

Beane's creations were frequently displayed at exhibits in D.C. and were showcased at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, though she may be best known for the colorful hats she crafted for civil rights activist Dorothy Height. One is even pictured on a postage stamp.

Dorothy Height Stamp USPS

In honor of Beane's 100th birthday in 2019, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser enacted a District-wide holiday in her honor (Vanilla Beane Day, September 13).

"Combining grace, elegance, and longevity, Ms. Vanilla Beane embodied Black excellence," Bowser said in a statement following her death. "She was DC's Hat Lady. She 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. Rest in heaven, Ms. Beane. 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."

Beane had three children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Rest in peace, Miss Beane.

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