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The basement of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Northwest Washington was filled with ladies sporting wide-brims, crowns and a rainbow of other fancy hats. They had shown up to honor a retired government clerk who had been making their hats for half a century.
Vanilla P. Beane arrived in a white stretch limousine, smiled politely and waved. For years, her hats and her customers were the center of attention. But on Saturday, Beane, dressed in silver from head to toe, was the main attraction.
Beane is considered an icon by her clients and has won national acclaim for her hat-making skills. In 1975, she was inducted into the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers' hall of fame. Her customers and friends had come to celebrate her 90th birthday -- and that Beane is still making hats.
"Ms. Beane represents beauty, style and grace," said Deborah V. Drummer, the wife of Gethsemane's Pastor Khalfani Drummer. "She makes us all look good."
Beane's craft is a throwback to a more formal era, when women and men were expected to wear hats to church and dressy occasions. A hat, like no other fashion item, conveyed dignity, particularly for those whose lives were marginalized.
Beane began designing hats in the 1950s, when she worked part time for Washington Millinery Supply. In 1979, after she retired from the General Services Administration, Beane fulfilled a lifelong dream and opened her own hat shop, which is still going strong in Northwest Washington.
"Hats give me a lift and make me feel real special," said Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women and one of nearly 200 guests at Beane's birthday celebration. Height's photo is on the wall in Beane's shop. Height, a recipient of Congressional Gold Medal, sported one of Beane's creations.
Vanilla Powell, one of seven children, was raised in Wilson, N.C. Her father was a farmer and a carpenter; her mother was a seamstress. On Sundays, local ladies wore hats of all sizes to church. She moved to the District in 1942 and married Willie Beane, who died in 1993. Their three children who live in the region.
Attending Saturday's celebration were D.C. lawyer Robert Barnett of Williams & Connolly, Julia Marshall, owner and chief executive of Marshall's Funeral Home, and Richard Dietrick Sr., owner of Washington Millinery Supply, which has been in business for more than 70 years. Dietrick said hiring Beane was one of the best moves of his life. His son, Richard Dietrick Jr., who runs the business said, "Hatmaking is a dying art form that has been continued because of people like Vanilla Beane."
The walls of Beane's shop are lined with hats. There are hats for future brides and hats for new widows. Some have wide brims, replete with shiny stones and gold, and others are simple, in shades of gray and beige.
"Some people like real fussy hats. Others like sophisticated hats, and a lot of people like simple hats. I try to please people regardless of their race or background," said Beane, who described her business in three words: "Beautiful. Exciting. Nervous."
Last week, as women milled around the shop, Beane watched silently. One of the challenges of her job is creating unique hats for the collections of discerning clients.
"Nobody wants to walk into a church and see someone else wearing their hat," she said. "Some people don't even want people to know where they get their hats."
Beane said she typically goes for a more restrained look. "I like a little style but not too much," she said. But on her special day, Beane made an exception. Her hat, known as a "halo," was shiny and covered with silver roses.
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