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Vanilla Beane, D.C.'s Hat Lady, died at age 103

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The rules of hat fashion are simple - first, not too fancy or too wide.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Never wear your hat more than 1 inch above your eyebrows.

SUMMERS: Also, buy the hat first. The outfit will follow. And more generally...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VANILLA BEANE: Love many. Trust few. Learn to paddle your own canoe.

CHANG: These are the tenants of Mrs. Vanilla Beane, also known as D.C.'s Hat Lady. She shared that last aphorism with former Fox News host Chris Wallace back in 2020. Beane died earlier this week of heart complications. She was 103 years old.

SUMMERS: Her hats were seen on poet Maya Angelou, on a U.S. postage stamp, in a Smithsonian museum and on impeccably stylish churchgoing women in the greater Washington, D.C., area.

CHANG: And while she's being mourned now, she received her flowers while she was alive. Just last month, Beane received the Mayor's Arts Award for Distinguished Honor. Here's D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURIEL BOWSER: We are celebrating tonight's recipient for two reasons - one, because of her unmatched artistic and creative contributions to our city and her area of expertise and because today is her 103rd birthday.

(CHEERING)

BEANE: It's an honor to accept this award.

SUMMERS: Vanilla Powell moved to Washington in 1940. Two years later, she married Willie Beane Sr. Mrs. Beane took a job as an elevator operator in a downtown building with a hat store. She loved the hats, so she bought some material, and she started making her own.

CHANG: Eventually, she was hired by that hat store as a seamstress. Though she left for a government job, she kept designing her own hats. And in 1979, she opened her own shop.

SUMMERS: Vanilla Beane made hats for civil rights activist Dorothy Height but also for countless women, Black and white, who just wanted to look good on Sundays. Each of her hats was bespoke for that customer - one of a kind.

CHANG: Beane did this six days a week up until her 100th year. And in a statement, Mayor Bowser said, quote, "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." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.