Hilton Dresden, 25, has done just about everything. They’ve written articles about roller-skating teen stars, walked the runway for Hamlet’s Vintage, interviewed Sarah Jessica Parker, unwittingly designed a drag costume, and, most recently, had drawings featured in London Fashion Week.
In a recent collaboration with Nicopanda, Dresden’s anthropomorphic animal illustrations were paired with lyrics from pop icons and put on tee shirts; for example, on one shirt a zebra smoking a cigarette tells us—á la Madonna—to express ourselves while wearing a turquoise trench. These tees were featured by Nichola Formichetti’s brand on the runway in London and are now on sale on Amazon. The animals started out as a column for Out Magazine and were discovered by a friend of the designer through Instagram. “I’d be bored at work, because I was writing news stories all day, and I’d just want to draw because I’ve always drawn,” Dresden says. “So, I suggested a fashion column sort of thing to my editor and I said, what if I draw animals wearing outfits that you can recreate the outfit by buying these different pieces that are cool and new.” Dresden spends hours on each drawing and later posts them on Instagram. The social media platform has proved to be incredibly useful to Dresden, as that’s also how costume designer Andres Caballero discovered the illustration that became the inspiration for drag queen Aquaria’s purple ensemble, dubbed by RuPaul as one of her favorites ever to be seen on Drag Race.
The key to Dresden’s work and life seems to be that they’re unafraid to try anything, and refuse to put limits on themselves and their career as an artist. They started out as an intern at Out, but have since come into their own as a reporter, artist, and entertainer. Now freelancing as an illustrator, Dresden is creating two album covers for gay rapper F. Virtue, an underrepresented identity in the hip-hop community. Dresden also has a web series in the works, co-created with Talia Heller. “Hilton Dresden Wants a Show” can be viewed on YouTube and Cakeboy Magazine’s website, and the first episode features a rooftop, a pretentious British guy, “Shallow” from A Star is Born, and lots of red lipstick. “I become really obsessed with pop stars like Lady Gaga is my Lord and Savior, I would murder for her, I would do anything, and am in the cult of Lady Gaga and bow down in worship,” Dresden says, curly hair piled high and acid-wash-clad arms poised elegantly on their lap. “Which, now that I’m saying it out loud sounds insane. So, maybe I wouldn’t kill for her, but you never know.” Dresden has a penchant for comedy, which you can tell not only from their videos but almost as soon as you start a conversation together. On screen, it takes the form of screeching song lyrics and hurling their body in and out of frame, but in person, it’s a much quieter comedy, one that Dresden invites you to share it with a contagious laugh and humble self-depreciation.
While Dresden might not see themselves as a social media savant, their growing popularity is obvious. It’s clear that Dresden is an inspiration for many, and they reach many of those fans through Instagram. On an Insta-story Q&A session a few months before our interview, I remember seeing one young person write how Dresden was inspiring them to dress beyond gender norms. Dresden themselves favor typically feminine pieces, and their fashion shines through on Instagram seemingly daily. “It’s really nice to know you’re helping someone,” Dresden says. Their cheeks flush and curls bounce as they bob up and down with unpresuming laughter. “Dressing and being myself, I know it’s not the norm, but it helps other people take risks and be who they really want to be.” On the day of our interview, Dresden says, they were stopped in a store by a little boy who wanted a picture, presumably a young Instagram follower.
“This little gay boy came up to me and was like, are you Hilton Dresden?” Dresden says. “It was insane.”
Dresden also uses Instagram to urge young people to become politically active, particularly apropos in advance of this year's midterm elections. While being inspired by films and TV, as well as Our Lord and Savior Lady Gaga, Dresden is using their art and the wide accessibility of Instagram to shine a light on political issues, like the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings and voting procedures and rights. “I guess that [using Instagram] is a big part of my life, although I don’t like to go on my phone that much, I’ll end up going on my phone all the time, and I don’t want to be,” Dresden says.
Instagram has undoubtedly played a part in Dresden’s popularity. After interviewing Sarah Jessica Parker about her show Divorce, Dresden gave her a tee shirt printed with a macabre illustration of their take on “Sex and the City 3” (i.e., Directed by Tim Burton), which SJP then posted on Instagram. While Instagram has helped Dresden’s work gain exposure, they also warn that “Social media makes everyone look happier than they are, so don’t take it as the truth.” This happened even as their illustrations were jaunting down a runway in Europe. “I was at home for the weekend, in Wisconsin, and recently unemployed, so just like, super depressed about money and freaking out, not sure what I was going to do, and simultaneously, I have these super cool London Fashion Week pictures with my drawings, and was like ‘Wow, maybe things aren’t so bad,’” Dresden says.
The great part of social media is thousands of people get to keep up with Dresden and their new work, including their commitment to using that work to help others. “I want to help champion queer people and voices, and make queer kids feel like they can be themselves. And that’s one major thing I want to do with my life, to help queer people and gender non-binary people. I want to help that world feel unafraid to be themselves and to feel good because that’s a world I am in and am a part of. It hasn’t always been easy for me, but it feels really good to be this true to myself at this point, I’m being honest to who I am, with how I dress and feel and describe myself,” Dresden says. “It’s a little thrilling to feel like you’re asking for what you need.”
The next step for everyone inspired by Dresden? “Take what you love doing and make it work,” Dresden says. They know from experience that’s a lot easier said than done, but if their recent collaboration with Nicopanda is any indication, they’re a good model to take after. And what’s next for @hiltyhilthilt? “I intend to act more. I’m working on a web series with my friend that I want to put my passion into. It’s kind of like taking the ‘Five Things’ videos that I made at Out, which were like my little love series, and seeing the behind the scenes of making that and trying to make a talk show happen,” Dresden says. “New York is such a crazy place that I’m so exhausted with, but I will always love it. There’s something about New York, there’s nothing else like it.”