Kitty Mae Cupcake knew a great hat would make her costume perfect for her burlesque performance of Ethel Merman’s song, “If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd Have Baked a Cake.” Mind you, her act was full of whimsy; she wore oven mitts instead of full length gloves. When she couldn’t find the perfect topper, she made one. Alas, the stage lost a blossoming burlesque star, but Kitty Mae Millinery was born. “I would love to be on stage again, but hats have taken over my life,” says Susan Dillon, a.k.a. Kitty Mae Cupcake and the designer behind Kitty Mae Millinery.
The self-taught designer quickly made a name for herself, crafting over-the-top creations for burlesque performers and drag queens who wear her hats onstage. These aren’t stage props, however. Dillon learned traditional wire frame and Buckram hat-making skills and now makes handmade couture and heirloom bridal headwear as well as hand-formed silk florals. She also designs for pin up models, whose glamour harkens back to Bettie Page and Betty Grabel. Today, you’ll find pinup models in Kitty Mae chapeaux in fine art photography and at events from World War II-themed parties to classic car shows. “I like the 1930s and 1940s because that was a time when people took pride in their appearance,” she says.
Hat? Or Fascinator?
Americans fell in love with fascinators as we watched the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton in 2011. But what, exactly, is a fascinator? “Hats fit around the circumference of the head. Everything else is a fascinator,” Dillon explains. After the royal wedding, women could imagine themselves wearing a fascinator to a wedding or special event, the designer says. “The fascinator is the gateway hat,” she laughs. “With a fascinator, you can get used to having something on your head and looking and feeling wonderful.”
Our mothers knew the transformative power of the right hat, but American women really haven’t worn hats since the mid-1960s. Sadly, we’ve forgotten how. Kitty Mae is changing that. “I invite people to come to my showroom and play dress up with me,” Dillon says. “You learn what works and what looks good by trying on lots of hats.” Dillon teaches clients how to properly secure a hat with bobby pins so that it will not fall off. Once a woman knows that her hat will not go flying off, she relaxes into wearing it. When that happens, her confidence soars. “I want my hats to say, ‘This person has amazing style and is hugely confident.’ I want to enhance and make the day special for women. I put that into my pieces,” Dillon says. Women get wonderfully encouraging reactions when they step out in a Kitty Mae headpiece. Eyes light up when people see a woman wearing a beautiful hat. “Hats always get positive attention. People always tell me how much they love even my craziest hats.” Invariably, seeing a beautiful hat worn with confidence makes others want to wear hats. “Men love women who wear hats. They adore it,” asserts Dillon. “Especially hats with veiling. It must be the mystery of it.”
The Perfect Time to Wear a Hat
Kitty Mae Millinery creations grace the increasingly popular Kentucky Derby parties thrown throughout town. “The Kentucky Derby gives you a reason to play with wearing a beautiful hat. The wide brimmed hats I do for the Derby are so fun to make because restraint goes out the window,” Dillon laughs. “I’m too busy making all the hats to have a party,” she says. “I let others have the parties. I just make everyone who’s there look fabulous.”
Dillon also revamps hats—both her own creations and vintage hats. She freshens her creations from past seasons to give clients a slightly different look. Her clients call it “Kittying up” a hat. Kitty Mae Millinery creations are sartorial investments. One-of-a-kind couture selections and bridal pieces are painstakingly fashioned by hand. Her bridal creations embody traditional beauty with an edge. “I’m inspired by vintage and classic styles, but you can see the burlesque in them. I have a showgirl look. I’m about getting attention myself, and that’s what I put into my hats,” she laughs.
Like everything about the former Kitty Mae Cupcake, Dillon’s journey to bespoke milliner is unconventional, with stops along the way as a ski instructor (talk about hat hair!) to horse wrangler on a ranch in Taos, New Mexico to preschool teacher. “I love the children’s thought processes and their imaginations,” she says. The Kitty Mae Millinery atelier is in the artsy RiNo district north of downtown Denver. The area includes a remarkable variety of creative businesses from art galleries to wineries, and an array of studio spaces. Dillon and her husband, the fine arts and portrait photographer Norman Dillon, live near their studios along with their German Shepherd Nina and two cats, Teton and Lucky.
Frequent Colorado Expression contributor Kimberly Field longs to sashay down the boulevard in a jaunty, wide-brimmed hat.
Kitty Mae Millinery’s Couture Creations
3501 Wazee St., #80, Denver
Open by appointment or chance