WASHINGTON (AP) — Ninety-year-old Vanilla Beane is a milliner who knows that a hat can be so much more than mere headgear.
Look no further than Beane’s favorite customer: civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height, whose hats were known far and wide as a statement of her dignity and grace.
When Height died at age 98 this spring, some of her friends and admirers — Beane among them — wore hats to her funeral as a final tribute. The audience was dotted with colorful creations and the eulogist-in-chief noted Height’s most distinctive feature in his remarks.
“We loved those hats that she wore like a crown,” President Barack Obama said.
Now one of Beane’s creations is to be immortalized in a modest memorial to Height in front of the southwest Washington building where the civil rights leader lived for 27 years: A metal replica of a Vanilla Beane original — painted hot pink — will be placed atop one of the city’s obsolete emergency call boxes this month, part of a citywide initiative to restore the 19th-century structures as works of art.
Beane, a rare practitioner of an old-fashioned art form, has her own remarkable story.
She began her hat business after retiring from the federal government, and 30 years later her creations remain very much in demand in an age when few people wear hats and many of those who do are content with mass-produced headgear from China.
Beane still works full time at Bene Millinery, her boutique in the Manor Park neighborhood of northwest Washington.
“I just enjoy being here,” Beane said recently, surrounded by finished and unfinished hats of all shapes, styles and colors. The work provided a welcome distraction after the 1980 death of her son in a boating accident and the 1993 death of her husband.
“It just helped me through these trying times that I’ve had,” Beane said.
Born in Wilson, N.C., Vanilla Powell was the youngest of seven. After coming to Washington, she met her husband, whose last name yielded the unexpected combination with her first name. (She says she didn’t even think about it until someone remarked on it about a year after the wedding.)
Beane became interested in hats when she was working as an elevator operator in a downtown building that housed Washington Millinery Supply. She liked to sew and would often stop in the shop to look around and pick up materials. In 1955, she was hired as a seamstress.
“She had very much talent, but she didn’t have the design know-how in those days,” recalled Richard Dietrick Sr., the owner of Washington Millinery Supply. “She picked it up very quickly.”
Beane eventually left the company and went to work as a mail clerk for the General Services Administration. But hatmaking continued to be her passion: She’d make them at home and sell them at hat parties.
Dietrick eventually decided to move Washington Millinery closer to his home in Maryland and focus on bridal headpieces and veils.
“You girls quit wearing hats, more or less,” said Dietrick, 85.
But hat fashion lived on in the African-American community, particularly in the churches, and Beane bought much of the store’s remaining inventory.
“Then I had to find a place to put it,” Beane said. After retiring from the government, she opened her own shop on Third Street.
The store next door is Lovely Lady Boutique, where Height bought many of her clothes. She’d stop by Beane’s to get a matching hat.
Lovely Lady’s owner, Ethel Sanders, said Beane has a keen eye for fashion and manages to make her hats up-to-date.
“There are not very many milliners around, and she happens to be one of the best,” Sanders said.
Beane, whose custom-made creations can run up to $500, said she believes hats are making a small comeback, thanks in part to church-sponsored teas and the attention paid to Height toward the end of her life and around her funeral.
When Beane is not busy working on an order for a customer, she experiments with new designs for herself.
“It’s hard for me to find a hat that suits me because I don’t like too large a hat,” Beane said. “I’m very conservative.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.