Vanilla Powell Beane was an American fashion icon and centenarian businesswoman. At the age of 103, Beane was the oldest legacy business-owner in Washington, DC. She was inducted into the National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers (NAFAD) in 1975, and opened her hat shop, Bené Millinery, four years later. Beane’s custom-made designs have adorned the heads of hundreds of Washington women. One is featured in a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and one is featured on a US Postal Service stamp. On 13 September 2022, Vanilla Beane's 103rd birthday, Mayor Muriel Bowser presented Mrs. Beane with the Mayor's Arts Award for Distinguished Honor.
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On 12 November 2021, the Babson College Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs honored Vanilla Beane at a reception in New York City. Previous inductees include Soichiro Honda, Diane von Fürstenberg, Rupert Murdoch., J. Willard Marriott, Sir. Richard Branson, Robert Kraft, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jr., and Steve Forbes Jr. The first recipient of the prestigious annual award was Berry Gordy.
In 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser declared 13 September 2019 "Vanilla Beane Day" in the District of Columbia. This marked the second such honor. Beane, dubbed the "Dean of Washington Hats," was given an honorary key to the city following the first annual Living Legend Luncheon on 22 November 2003. "This award was inaugurated to honor those heroes and heroines who have gone unrecognized, but have made substantial contributions to the Washington community."
To mark the occasion of her 100th birthday, local artist Benjamin Ferry created a series of original paintings and drawings of Beane designing hats. A dozen pieces were placed on display at Gallery Neptune & Brown in DC’s hip Logan Circle. That same weekend, Beane visited the NMAAHC to participate in an oral history project at the site of her permanent exhibit. The Parks Main Street hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony at Bené Millinery, where young ballerinas from the well-known Davis Center performed. The rededication was attended by DC’s youngest milliner, and the honorable Tim Shriver. On 8 October 2019, the Council of the District of Columbia honored Beane with the Vanilla Beane 100th Birthday Ceremonial Resolution of 2019.
Humbled by the attention she received after her 100th birthday, Beane agreed to a handful of in-person interviews where she spoke about her life, legacy, and passion for designing hats. In February 2020, Beane was honored as the Merit Mother of the Year for DC Metro Area State Association by the American Mother of the Year organization.
In March 2020, the woman who once shied away from public attention was selected by esteemed journalist Chris Wallace, and interviewed for his segment, “Power Player of the Week.” The piece aired on FOX News Sunday on 6 March 2020.
Affectionately known to many Washingtonians as “the hat lady,” Vanilla Beane opened her hat shop in 1979, after retiring from a career of supporting roles with the General Services Administration. While working as an elevator operator in a building in downtown Washington, Beane was introduced to Washington Millinery & Supply, Co., and store owner, Richard Dietrich. In 1955, she got a job as a clerk at the store where she was previously a customer. It was at this store where Beane bought supplies and taught herself to make hats. The budding designer was inspired by the encouragement she received from Dietrich, and others who were witnesses to the early years of her craft.
When Dietrich moved his store to Maryland, Beane was able to purchase the stock of millinery supplies to build her own millinery business which she named Bené Millinery. Twenty years later, she was inducted into the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD) Hall of Fame. At Beane’s 90th birthday party, Dietrick said “hiring Beane was one of the best moves of [his] life.”
Bené Millinery regulars ranged from Washington church ladies, to derby-goers, to Washington’s well-heeled. Beane created hats for movies, charity events, weddings, and a special hat for CBS correspondent Rita Braver, when she attended Royal Ascot. By special request, a custom crown was made for a guest who attended a birthday party for the late poet Maya Angelou, which was hosted by media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
Due to her small frame and conservative style, Beane has stated that the turban is her personal favorite. In 2018, a custom-made green turban was selected to be part of Google’s 3-D interactive exhibit curated at the NMAAHC, where Beane was a guest two years prior for the elaborate grand opening. A selection of Beane’s hats were brought over from the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC for the occasion.
Bené hats have been displayed Black Fashion Museum in Harlem since 1990, and at the Smithsonian FolkLife Festival in 2013.
“We loved those hats that she wore like a crown.”
- President Barack Obama, delivering the eulogy of the late Dr. Dorothy Height
Beane’s most notable customer was the late civil rights activist, and former NAACP President Emeritus, Dr. Dorothy Height. A 2005 musical, "If These Hats Could Talk," debuted, based on the Height's memoir. A writer for PBS News Hour remembered Dr. Height: "She was a lady from head to toe. I never saw her head uncovered. She wore elaborate, beautiful hats everywhere – the kind with huge brims, bows and flowers that matched her suits." At Height’s funeral in 2010, the iconic headpieces were mentioned by the Honorable President Barack Obama. One of these crowns is immortalized on top of a call box in front of Height’s southwest DC home. Another hat depicted on a US Postal Service stamp featuring Height was issued on 1 February 2017 as part of the Black Heritage Series collection.
While Bené Millinery has also sold hats made by other designers, each of Ms. Beane’s custom-made hats are designed and created by Beane herself; no two are the same. Until 2020, when operations ceased due to the global pandemic, Beane worked out of her Washington hat shop at least 6 days a week. Only three other designers made hats under Beane, whose custom-made hats all carry her distinct label.
Vanilla Powell Beane was born on 13 September 1919 in Wilson, North Carolina. She was the second youngest of nine children born to James and Martha Powell. Beane worked on a farm where she learned to pick tobacco and cotton and had a job babysitting. She got her early education at Sugar Hill school, a one-room schoolhouse in Nash County.
In 1940, Beane moved to Washington. Two years later she married the late Willie Beane, Sr., a World War II veteran from Kilmarnock, Virginia. The couple settled in Washington where they raised three children, and eventually became grandparents seven times over. Until her death at age 103, Vanilla Beane could still make a hat, and was a proud resident of Washington, DC.
A complete list of articles about Vanilla Beane can be found here.