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100-Year-Old "DC Hat Lady" Lives a Fulfilled Life

“Yeah, I just love coming to work. It keeps me going. And – I feel at home. This is home away from home.”

Vanilla Beane is as sweet as they come.  She wears her name, just as well as she models the custom-made hats she’s created for six decades at Bene’ Millinery and Bridal Supplies in Washington, D.C.

Affectionately called D.C.’s Hat Lady …This 100 -year-old works six days a week. One of her dearest customers is her granddaughter Jeni.

Jeni: “So, six days, you still work over 40 hours a week and you're a hundred years old. How does it feel to be still working?”

Vanilla: “Well, I enjoy working. It gives me something to do.  I come in and look at my fabrics and create.”

In 1919, she was born Vanilla Powell in Wilson, North Carolina. It was 1942, when she moved to Washington, D.C. then married Willie Beane.

She worked as an elevator operator, seamstress, and mail clerk over the years. In her spare time, she mastered the art of hat making.

“It first started out with – as a hobby. It got better. Each time I was encouraged by people, and so that helped me to keep going.”

Beane’s dream became reality in 1979, when she opened her own successful hat business.

“Well, you have to be kind to the customers and polite. And try to select something they like. They just have to feel good in something. And you have to try to select something that you think and the color they want.”

It’s Beane’s gift of style, that ushered customers to her doors, including church goers, derby attendees, socialites and community leaders. Her most notable client was late civil rights icon, Dorothy Height.

The former president of the National Council for Negro Women was hardly seen without a hat. She became Beane’s regular client and friend. Beane says height would purchase a dress from the boutique next door, and top it off with one of her custom hats.

Today, one of Beane’s hats is part of a memorial in front of heights home. And, a U.S. Postal Service Stamp shows Height wearing a Beane signature crown.  

“It's on the postage stamp. And I made that, that was one of my hats that I made.”

Jeni: “And it's originally pink, right? It was originally pink?”

Vanilla: “Yes.”

Jeni:    “Which is your favorite color…”

Vanilla: “Yeah”

Jeni: “But they changed it. Is that okay with you? They changed it to purple to match the dress.”

Vanilla: “Yes. Purple is her favorite color.”

Beane’s shop is frequented by African-American church goers, who continue a tradition of wearing hats to service, to honor God and express unique style.

Beane wears a hat every day of the week, especially during service on Sundays at Gethsemene Baptist Church, where she’s been worshiping more than 50 years.

“A lot of uh members wear hats. They look for me to wear a hat every Sunday.”

Beane says a good hat completes a look and boosts confidence.  “You're well-dressed when you put on a hat. It makes you look good, and – outstanding.”

So, what’s the secret to choosing the perfect hat?  Beane says it’s all about how it makes you feel.  “Well, you have to try it on first to see the face and how it feels on, and if it feels good. So, you have to – probably have to try on more than one to get the right style.”

Beane’s favorite turban is part of Google’s 3-d interactive exhibit curated at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
For her 100th birthday in 2019, D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser declared September 13th Vanilla Beane Day in the District of Columbia.
Beane says she’s blessed to continue thriving within her passion at 100 years old.  She shares her thoughts on living a fulfilled life.   “Well, I – treat people right. Eat good food, breakfast. And I just – enjoy what you do. It keeps you going.”

The sweetest legacy of virtue, style and entrepreneurship- - D.C.’s Hat Lady, Vanilla Beane.

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