As a young girl, Yvonne Berry DeVigne watched her aunt carefully cutting and shaping stylish hats for women in Philadelphia's African American society and churches. By the age of 8, she had created her first hat -- doll perfect with a six-inch round black velvet brim and a sea-green satin dome, decorated with a cluster of tiny colored balls.
DeVigne preserved the hat for 81 years, and she prospered in the art of millinery, creating thousands of hats over the years for Washington women of all walks of life. For 25 years, until it closed in the mid-1970s, DeVigne was chief designer and milliner at the well-known Bachrach's Millinery. She made fur hats, fabric hats, hats with veils, hats to order for Washington's well-to-do at the shop at 11th and H streets NW.
Long after the art of making hats by hand gave way to mass-produced crowns, long after more and more well-dressed women felt complete without the pillbox or summer straw brim, DeVigne continued to design and make hats. "She just enjoyed the art," said her granddaughter Renee DeVigne.
"People would bring her scraps of fabric, and she would make stunning creations," the granddaughter said. "She could take something that a car ran over, and you would never know it."
Yvonne Berry was born in Philadelphia, the granddaughter of a slave. In 1932, she graduated from an all-girls high school in Philadelphia and married Gaston L. DeVigne II; he had gone to an all-boys school, and they met at a school dance and fell in love. He died in December. They would have celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary on May 24.
After graduation from high school, she began her millinery career in Philadelphia and became one of the first African Americans to break the color barrier in millinery there.
Her son, Gaston DeVigne III, recalled that in the mid-1950s, some people suggested that for her to be successful she needed to go to France and learn French so that she could be promoted as a French designer. She chose not to go.
She gained a reputation in Philadelphia's black press as one of the city's best-dressed women, and the distinction continued when she moved to the Washington area in 1956 with her husband. Johnson Publications recruited him to be its first staff photographer covering the White House, Congress and African American social events in Washington for Ebony and Jet magazines.
She always would be immaculately dressed, properly accessorized and coordinated from head to toe as she accompanied her tuxedoed husband on his assignments to embassies and other Washington social settings.
DeVigne worked in a Georgetown store for one year in the mid-1950s until New York salesmen told the owners of Bachrach's Millinery about "the black girl down there" and encouraged them to hire her.
In those early days, her skills did not always shield her from some white customers who were offended when they discovered that a black woman had created the lovely hat they adored, her son said. Some furriers also refused to send business her way after Bachrach's closed.
Throughout her career, though, others embraced the Silver Spring resident's work. Birdia Bush, a contemporary of DeVigne's, was one of them. She was making hats and teaching adult education at the District's Armstrong High School in the late 1960s, when she would go downtown and see DeVigne through the store window. On occasion, Bush would watch DeVigne leave the store.
"She was completely dressed up in her hat and gloves. She looked like she owned the store. So I wanted to meet her," Bush said. DeVigne gladly showed her techniques and gave her hints on how to display her hats. She also gave her the names of wholesalers in New York where she would get feathers, flowers and other items to trim her hats. They became friends and talked at least twice a week.
Over the years, DeVigne judged hat competitions for the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, critiquing the workmanship and style, said Vanilla P. Beane, the owner of Bene Millinery on Third Street NW. DeVigne was a perfectionist who hand-stitched berets, who could take fur and mold it, and who could master any fabric, she said.
Pulling a fur pelt to fit over a mold took considerable strength, and for a 5-foot, 5-inch woman she was pretty strong, said her son, who recalled her using his exercise wheel one day. "She just dropped down and did two or three" rotations, he said. "She was in her mid-seventies at least."
Her motto, said granddaughter Renee DeVigne, was: "Do what you can do until you can't do it anymore."
DeVigne, 89, who died May 5 of cancer at Casey House in Rockville, made her last hats in April. Among them was a white cloth hat for her 12-year-old great-granddaughter Joelle Yvonne DeVigne to wear for Easter.