To pass the time during the COVID-19 lockdowns, many of us had pandemic projects. Maybe it was learning a new language, cleaning out closets or building the ultimate home gym. UD graduate Debora O’Donnell ’82 combined two of her passions — reading and fashion — to create a project that not only engaged her mind and creative energy but also connected her to a larger community, reaching far beyond her home in Milwaukee.
“I’ve always had a predilection for big skirts,” O’Donnell said, “and colleagues frequently commented on them saying I should post pictures on Instagram. One day I realized that one of my skirts matched the cover of a book I was reading,” she said, and the idea to photograph them together was born.
O’Donnell set up a makeshift studio in her bedroom using a velvet stool and full-length mirror. She snapped some selfies strategically displaying the book cover and skirt, but she intentionally omitted her face from the photos. She showed the photos to some colleagues and they told her she should post them on Instagram. O’Donnell had a Facebook account but had never explored other social media outlets, so the encouragement to share her image sparked her curiosity to learn something new.
“We live in an age of selfies everywhere, but I didn’t want this to be about me. I really wanted the focus to be on the book,” she said.
And about the “look.” Her brand became posting these faceless images all set with the same simple background featuring impeccably matched skirts and book jackets. There was also an element of mystery and intrigue. It became an interesting project for her and was gaining popularity on Instagram. O’Donnell soon began to include short book reviews to go with the photos. The reviews also grew in popularity and O’Donnell began to connect with people from all over the country.
“I started to put a little more of myself into the reviews, and people started to really respond,” she said. “I don’t always love every book, and the readers seemed to appreciate my honesty.”
This give-and-take became a lifeline during the lockdown and expanded her connection to people who shared her interests and wanted to connect with each other.
“It became a way to share ideas about important and timely topics and discuss them through the ways they are manifested in people’s stories. It’s been a very positive experience,” O’Donnell said.
It’s also been a lot of fun, she said. If a suitable match for a book couldn’t be found in O’Donnell’s extensive wardrobe, the search of online vintage stores or specialty shops became an exciting treasure hunt. One of her favorite matches is a skirt with an old roadside motel sign on it that coordinated beautifully with the cover of the Simone St. James novel The Sun Down Motel.
O’Donnell tries to do a couple of posts per week and admits the project has easily turned in to a second full-time job. Her daytime occupation is as a senior copy editor for Kohl’s. An English and French major at UD, her love of words comes naturally, and perhaps in the future, O’Donnell could be matching her outfit to her own book.
“I love writing and have, like, 14 different ideas swirling in my head. I desperately need either a life coach or an editor, I’m not sure which, to point to one and say, ‘OK, that one.’”
For now, O’Donnell will keep reading, matching and sharing her colorful reviews and clothing with her newfound friends. It’s a connection sure to outlast the pandemic.
In true UD fashion, O’Donnell’s pandemic project provided an opportunity for her to learn by reading books that feed her soul, lead others to new written treasures to enrich their lives, and serve her expanding Instagram community by sharing her passion for reading and fashion in ways that kept people engaged with each other at a time when distance was not only physical but emotional as well.
“I’ve been reading all my life, and I think it makes you a more empathetic, compassionate person. It has to. You can’t be involved with someone’s story and struggles for 300-400 pages and not emerge a different, more enlightened person.”
You can follow O’Donnell on Instagram @oh_apostrophe.