There aren’t many stories about centenarian entrepreneurs, let alone females in this demographic who still work over 40-hours a week.
Vanilla Powell Beane, affectionately known as Washington, D.C.’s “hat lady,” turns 100 this year and is still custom-making crowns that are the talk of the town.
When the now-celebrated milliner made her first hat, another brave female seamstress was making headlines down South.
Department store tailor Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparked a civil rights movement in the United States.
800 miles north, and 13 months later, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the case that would stake Parks’ claim in history. In the not-too-distant shadows of the same Capitol Hill, Vanilla Beane was quietly making history herself.
At this time, the amateur seamstress from Wilson, North Carolina, had followed in her older sister’s footsteps and moved to Washington.
She found work as an elevator operator in a building that housed the Washington Millinery & Supply Company.
The shop, owned by Richard Dietrick, Sr., is where Beane would frequent to browse the hats and buy materials.
“We’d spend eight hours there [working the elevator]. But you weren’t busy all the time, so I would work on my hats. I bought some supplies from this place because it was a hat supply place. They encouraged me, you know, when I would make something. And I finally got a job with them as a supply clerk, straighten-up stuff, and I would watch people... the different designers coming in buying supplies. And I learned by watching them.” - Vanilla Beane
The dream of owning her own business became a reality in 1979 when Dietrick sold his line of millinery supplies to her upon his retirement.
She then had a job as a mail clerk for the General Services Administration (GSA), but upon retiring, she decided to turn her hobby of hat making into a full-time job.
During an interview for Beane’s 90th birthday celebration, Dietrick said that hiring Beane was one of the best moves of his life.
His son, who still runs the business in Rockville, Maryland, said then that "hat making is a dying art form that has been continued because of people like Vanilla Beane."
For six decades Beane, and the crowns she has created at Bené Millinery, have been a staple in D.C.’s African-American church-going community, and her shop a legacy in the Manor-Park small business district.
Beane was the hat maker for the late civil rights icon Dorothy Height, who would pick up dresses from the Black-owned boutique next door and come over to Bené to find a hat to match.
Height, the former president of the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW), was rarely seen without a hat on her head, so much so that former President of the United States Barack Obama mentioned them in his eulogy.
Pictured on a U.S. Postal Service Forever stamp wearing one of Beane’s masterpieces, it can be said that Vanilla Beane is forever emblazoned on the stamp as well.
“We loved those hats that she wore like a crown.” - President Barack Obama (2010)
In Southwest Washington, one of Beane’s creations is immortalized as a memorial to Height in front of the building where the civil rights leader lived for almost 30 years.
Painted hot pink, a metal version of a Bené original sits on top of an emergency call box, a beacon of style and grace.
Beane’s custom-made crowns served as eye-catching icons that represent grace and dignity, coinciding with a national political reckoning and civil rights movement evoking change across the U.S.
It’s thought that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was somewhat responsible for the decline of hats, as the first U.S. president not to wear one to his inauguration.
True or not, decades of iconic hairstyles such as the afro may have also contributed to a shift away from wearing hats on the regular.
The trend is strong in communities that still value the tradition; and neither derby-goers nor Royals, nor those who just want to feel like royalty, are giving up their hat habit.
“You have a certain air when you put on a hat. If you put on the whole shebang and you’re satisfied, you walk different. You act different. And people treat you different.” - Elaine Saunders (a friend of Beane’s)
On her birthday this year, Beane doesn’t plan to take the day off from work, although festivities planned throughout the weekend may give her more reason to reflect on her craft and the historical significance of her life-long work.
“She’s at the shop six days a week, and whenever we celebrate her birthday, she typically wants to stay open so people can stop by and get a hat to wear to the party,” Beane’s granddaughter Jeni Hansen said.
The entrepreneur, and founder of her own small business, plans to help Beane see Bené Millinery thrive by selling the hats online.
Earlier in the year, Hansen addressed a crowd at a D.C. seniors community where Beane listened on, and was likely the oldest person in attendance. “When I think about the world in the last century, nothing I have hurdled compares to what she has come through. For all the things she couldn't do or be... I look with the deepest gratitude at how far she has come, just for me.”
What’s the secret to her more than 60 years of business? “The customers,” she smiles.
Inducted into the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD) Hall of Fame in 1954, Beane is no stranger to the accolades that have been bestowed upon her after opportunity met preparation back in 1955.
She has a day named after her in Washington, D.C. And, a signed note from the late poet Maya Angelou, who received a custom-made crown of her own, gifted by a friend who attended a surprise party for Angelou thrown by none other than Oprah Winfrey.
A year before her 99th birthday, a young artist by the name of Benjamin Ferry wandered by the hat shop while on a walk with his dog.
Hansen recounted, “He got up the courage to go into the shop one day, but as a white male felt out of place in a shop full of bright colored ladies hats.” The two artists struck up a conversation, then a friendship. On Beane’s 99th birthday, Ferry unveiled a painting of Vanilla Beane at her birthday party attended by her closest family and friends. This year, for her 100th, an entire exhibit is on display.
“Ben has now completed over 40 works of art. They’re beautiful. He sent me a picture of the shop and I thought, 'OK, that’s the shop,” until I looked closer to realize it was a painting and not a photograph. Everything is as it looks in real life. Her [Beane] standing at the counter... the hats hanging on display... the old box fan. Everything. I’m blown away at these two artists... these two creators of such beautiful things.”
Ferry’s exhibit, which will run September 14 through October 12, is open to the public at gallery neptune & brown in Washington’s hip Logan Circle. “Here, people who have never visited the shop before can see her hats, and her life. Her hats are her life.”
One very special hat sits in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in downtown D.C.
It’s a 3-D replica of Beane’s favorite green turban, part of a collaboration between the museum, the Smithsonian Institution Digitization Program and Google.
“I had to explain Google,” Hansen added, “but she liked the display very much. I think she said something like, 'Oh, that’s nice,” but she has no idea the significance of her dream, the impact of her perseverance and the doors that have opened due to her dedication to her craft. Long nights, overnights, conventions in Kansas, and working at 100. It keeps her going, so long may she run. And I hope we can continue to keep up with her!”
Sasha Horne is an award-winning journalist, creator of SashaTalksTech.com and host of #Tech2020 a new series streaming this September on Facebook Watch that examines how technology impacts our well-being. Send your story ideas to @SashaReports_ on Twitter.
Photo: Michael Avon/MichaelAvonArt.com