Mrs. Beane Owned Bene Millinery & Bridal Supplies in Northwest D.C.

By Colleen Grablick

Vanilla Beane, 90, is seen in her shop, Bene’, in Washington Saturday, May 29, 2010. Beane’s favorite customer was civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height, whose hats were known far and wide as a statement of her dignity and grace. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Vanilla Beane, a milliner whose hats topped the heads of poet Maya Angelou, civil rights activist Dorothy Height, and countless numbers of Black women in the District over the past several decades, has died at age 103.

Beane died Sunday at a local hospital due to complications after an aortic tear, according to the Washington Post.

“We were blessed to have Ms. Beane in our community and I certainly was blessed to call her a friend,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said of the hatmaker — known as D.C.’s Hat Lady — who operated a shop in Manor Park for nearly half a century, adorning residents in her colorful creations of tulle, ribbon, and bows. “Ms. Beane lived until she died — and may we all be so lucky and blessed. Vanilla Beane was a class act.”

Born in 1919 in Wilson, North Carolina, Beane moved to D.C. in 1942 with her sisters. Working as an elevator operator at a building in downtown D.C. that housed Washington Millinery & Supply Co., Beane decided to buy some of her own material and try her hand at making a hat. She then landed a role as a seamstress at that business that supplied the material for her first creations. (During her 90th birthday celebration, Richard Dietrich, owner of the Washington Millinery & Supply, Co., said “hiring Beane was one of the best moves of [his] life,” according to Beane’s website.) She left Washington Millinery & Supply, Co. to work as a mail clerk with the General Services Administration — all the while continuing her craft, which would become more like an art form.

In 1979, she opened her own business on Third Street NW, Bené Millinery & Bridal Supplies, making her the oldest legacy business owner in the city.

By that point, Beane had made her mark on D.C.. — and on fashion nationwide. She was inducted into the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers Hall of Fame in 1975, and has a day — Sept. 13, her birthday — named after her in the District. Among her most famous customers is Dorothy Height, the former president of the National Council for Negro Women, who frequented Beane’s shop. Rarely seen without a hat on, Height is depicted on a U.S. Postal Service stamp wearing one of Beane’s creations, and the call box outside of Height’s former Southwest D.C. home shows the activist donning several of Beane’s custom-made hats. A metal version of a Beane original sits atop the call-box, painted in bright pink.

She also made a hat for the late poet Maya Angelou, at the special request of a guest who attended a birthday party thrown for Angelou by Oprah Winfrey. Beane and her hats were the subject of an exhibit at Gallery Neptune & Brown on 14th Street in 2019, and one is featured in a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where Beane was invited as a guest for the grand opening.

As Ward 4 councilmember Janeese Lewis George after Beane’s passing, her legacy is “stitched” into the District’s history.

But for all of the fame, accolades, and big-name clients, the D.C. fixture never seemed quite preoccupied with the attention or fanfare herself. She worked at her shop six days a week — even throughout the pandemic, and even after she turned 100. Ahead of her 100th birthday — a weekend celebrated with a ribbon cutting at her shop, an invitation to narrate an oral history of her exhibit at NMAAHC, and a bevy of media coverage, Beane told BET she probably wasn’t going to take the day off. She’d often work on her birthday, her granddaughter Jeni Hansen told the outlet, “so people can stop by and get a hat to wear to the party.”

“Just keep working, and treat people right, and try to help everybody,” Beane told Southern Living in July. “I come into the shop every day and meet people, so that keeps me going.”

Beane’s husband, Willie George Beane, died in 1993. The couple met in D.C. and had been married since 1942 — and yes, she made her own wedding dress.

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