Known widely in the District as “the Hat Lady,” Vanilla Powell Beane, the owner of a millinery store that catered mainly to African American women and who celebrated her 103rd birthday in September, died on Oct. 23.
A relative said she died from complications of an aortic tear in a D.C. area hospital.
Beane’s store, Bene Millinery & Bridal Supplies, in Northwest opened in 1979. Famous customers included the late Dr. Dorothy Heights, longtime leader of the National Council of Negro Women and adviser to U.S. presidents and noted poet-author Maya Angelou. A 2017 Forever Stamp has an image of Height wearing one of Beane’s purple hats.
Beane received induction into the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designed in 1975 and the Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs in 2020. Beane’s hats have been exhibited at the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Black Fashion Museum in Harlem, New York City and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Beane came into the world as Vanilla Powell in Wilson, N.C., on Sept. 13, 1919. Beane was the youngest of seven children.
She moved to the District in 1942 where she met her husband, Willie Beane. She worked at the Washington Millinery Supply in Northwest as a seamstress in the 1950s. After she left the company, she worked as a mail clerk for the General Services Administration and continued to make hats as a side gig.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who knew Beane for years, praised her as a talented leader and trailblazer. On her 100th birthday in 2019, Bowser proclaimed “Vanilla Beane Day” in the District.
“Combining grace, elegance and longevity, Ms. Vanilla Beane embodied Black excellence,” Bowser said. “Her talents have been on display in our city since I was just a little girl. No matter the occasion or the outfit, whether she was designing for a neighbor or a civil rights icon like Dorothy Height, Ms. Beane always knew how to make the perfect hat. I was honored to celebrate her at this year’s Mayor’s Arts Awards, and now her story is a part of D.C.’s story.”
The mayor said she was “D.C.’s Hat Lady.”
“She was a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother,” Bowser said. “She was an inspiration for generations of Black women and for anyone who ever thought about turning their talent into a business that you love so much you stay at it into your hundreds.”
Bowser, speaking spiritually to Beane said “rest in heaven.”
“We will miss your beautiful soul and the beauty you brought to this world,” she said. “Today, we send out love and prayers to Ms. Beane’s family and all who will miss her.”
L. KeShawn Harris served in the Bowser administration as a Ward 4 MOCR (Mayor’s Office of Community Relations) employer. Through working as a MOCR, he got to know Beane.
“During my time in the Mayor Bowser’s Office, one of my favorite things to do was engaging our lovely seniors,” Harris said. “Through that engagement, I now have many adopted grandparents—including Ms. Vanilla Powell Beane. While she may have had international fame, she was humble and family-focused. She inspired many to keep pursuing their dreams, and she loved to crack a joke or two.
“I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from her and to have served her,” Harris added. “Now she joins the ranks of angels and ancestors and she will truly be missed.”
Beane leaves two children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1993 and her eldest child, Willie Beane Jr., died in 1980.
Funeral plans had not been made public by Informer press time.