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"I like smaller hats for myself," says milliner Vanilla Powell Beane. "I'm quite shy. I don't like a lot of fuss."
But lately, there's been a whole lot of fuss surrounding the 100-year-old Washington, D.C., hatmaker. There is a District-wide holiday in her honor (Vanilla Beane Day, September 13); her designs are housed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and she celebrated her recent birthday with a trip to the White House. "That was nice," she says. "It was quite a treat."
Beane may be best known for the colorful confections she crafted for civil rights activist Dorothy Height (one is even pictured on a postage stamp), but she never planned to be a milliner—much less a nationally celebrated one. She grew up in Wilson, North Carolina, the daughter of a sharecropper and the second youngest of seven children. "That was good," she says of having five older siblings. With a chuckle, she adds: "I guess I got a lot of attention."
In the 1940s, she followed her older sisters to D.C., where work was easier to find. "I was an elevator operator for a while," says Beane. "I was in a building where they sold hat materials, so I bought some materials and decided to see if I could do it."
She made her first hat, a simple buckram frame she covered in fabric. 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 says 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."
In 1979, Beane opened her own shop, Bené Millinery & Bridal Supplies, in D.C.'s Manor Park neighborhood, where the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD) Hall of Fame inductee still works today, alongside her family. "They help me, and I help them," she says. "We discuss different things. There are a lot of hats I don't like and a lot of hats I like, so we compromise and come up with different ideas and work together."
Hat styles have changed quite a bit over the years, she notes. "Now we have fascinators coming out and [hats with] wide brims," says Beane. "When I first started, I did more small hats, but now [people like] larger brims and larger hats. And [then when an event like] the Derby is coming up, you want to get something that people like for that, so it keeps you thinking and trying to come up with something different."
But the secret to her success (and perhaps her longevity, too) is timeless: "Just keep working, and treat people right, and try to help everybody," says Beane. "I come into the shop every day and meet people, so that keeps me going."
When Eva Bossenberger's pastor asked her to make 180 items to be sent to young girls in time for Christmas, she revved up the Singer sewing machine she's had for more than 70 years. Then, her dresses were sent all over the globe.
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