News & Politics

Vanilla Beane, DC’s Hat Lady, Passes Away at 103

The celebrated hatmaker "embodied Black excellence," Mayor Bowser wrote in a tribute.

Vanilla Beane. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Today, the District mourns a local fashion icon. Vanilla Beane, the milliner who was affectionately known as DC’s Hat Lady, has passed away at the age of 103.

Beane was known around town for her acclaimed Manor Park shop, Bené Millinery & Bridal Supplies, where she sold glamorous custom-made hats for more than 40 years.  But she hasn’t always lived the life of high-fashion. The North Carolina native worked as an elevator operator and mail clerk for decades before picking up hat-making as a hobby and eventually opening her shop in 1979. She never let up: In 2019, just before her 100th birthday, she told Washingtonian that creating hats keeps her going and she would “go mad” if she stopped.

Beane’s drive and skills didn’t go unrecognized. Many Washingtonians, from church ladies to the elite, requested her designs, including late poet Maya Angelou and CBS correspondent Rita Braver. One of her most notable customers was Dorothy Height, the civil rights leader and president of the National Council of Negro Women. The intricately decorated purple hat Beane designed for the activist later made its way onto the US Postal Service’s Dorothy Height Forever stamp in 2017. She was inducted into the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers in 1975 and the Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs in 2020.

Over the years, Beane’s hats have been displayed in exhibits at the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Black Fashion Museum in Harlem, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has also shown her appreciation for the milliner’s work over the years. She presented Beane with a key to the city in 2003 and designated her 100th birthday on September 13, 2019, as “Vanilla Beane Day.” This year, Bowser awarded Beane the Mayor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Honor on her 103rd birthday.

After learning about her death, Bowser honored Beane in a tweet and issued the following statement Tuesday morning:

“Combining grace, elegance, and longevity, Ms. Vanilla Beane embodied Black excellence. 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 DC’s story. She was DC’s Hat Lady. She was a mother, a grandmother, and a great grandmother. 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. Rest in heaven, Ms. Beane. We will miss your beautiful soul and the beauty you brought to this world. Today, we send our love and prayers to Ms. Beane’s family and all who will miss her.”

Beane had three children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Damare Baker
Research Editor

Before becoming Research Editor, Damare Baker was an Editorial Fellow and Assistant Editor for Washingtonian. She has previously written for Voice of America and The Hill. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied international relations, Korean, and journalism.