Gwen O’Looney

Gwen O’Looney, former mayor of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County from 1991-1998, poses for a portrait in front of a room that has become a closet for her fashion finds.

 

In 1990, Gwen O’Looney was elected to be the mayor of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County and served from 1991-1998.

Along with a love for politics and an interest in community engagement, O’Looney had a separate passion that developed much earlier on — fashion.

Political power and fashion

Before becoming mayor, O’Looney was already dedicating her life to public service. After graduating from the University of Georgia, she worked with the American Red Cross for 14 months in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and in 1973, she served as the liaison to the state’s Department of Human Resources under the former governor at the time, Jimmy Carter.

Before O’Looney became mayor, she also became heavily involved in her local community. One of her notable contributions was becoming the director for Neighbors as Helpers, a nonprofit  which worked to improve living conditions of those in four public housing communities.

“If Gwen doesn’t know somebody, she’ll get to know them immediately,” Sue Custance, a neighbor and friend of O’Looney, said. “If I’m out with Gwen, she runs into people she knows everywhere, and she brings social work to everything she does.”

O’Looney was only able to experiment more with fashion once she got back from Vietnam. She went from weighing 135 pounds to 225 pounds during her time in Vietnam. When she returned to the United States, she lost 100 pounds in one year, giving her the confidence to make conscious decisions about her look.

“I was going from one person to another, and I got to kind of decide what I cared about,” O’Looney said. “I love color, fabrics that feel good and layering because I’m cold-natured.”

However, O’Looney’s rediscovery for her interest in dressing up was once again halted when she became mayor.

During her time as mayor, O’Looney accomplished a number of feats ranging from implementing The Classic Center and its design to resolving a number of federal regulation violations in the city.

In terms of her fashion while she served, O’Looney was unable to afford clothes because her salary was $20,000 for eight years. Instead, people gave her clothes deemed “mayor clothes.” O’Looney also returned to weighing over 200 pounds during her two terms. 

“My appearance just wasn’t a priority,” O’Looney said. “There’s a part of me that feels sometimes vain when I really get into exercising and shaping up and losing weight, and I get resistant to caring about how I look.”

A closet of history

Even though her love for fashion was momentarily forgotten during her political career, O’Looney’s love for dressing up started at a younger age. 

After she graduated high school, O’Looney received a four-year subscription to Vogue from her aunt, which prompted her to dress more “out of the box” than her peers.

When O’Looney lived in New York for five years, she noted how expensive the clothes were and started to perceive retail as “a museum” because she couldn’t afford anything.

That’s when she discovered discount stores and thrift shops. Now, O’Looney’s closet, described as a “coloring book,” consists of secondhand, vintage clothing as well as handmade pieces from places she’s traveled to. Most of her pieces are over 20 years old.

“I love color and I love things that are outrageously discounted,” O’Looney said. “It’s more of an accumulation now, but I still care for my clothes in the way they last.”

While O’Looney has always loved specific types of clothing, her style has experienced shifts overtime, mainly due to historical reasons.

O’Looney was the first woman hired by what was formerly called the Boys Club of America, so she wore a lot of suits to “look like a man.” However, once women were allowed to experiment more with colors and express their personalities, she started to pick clothes fit to her figure and also started to wear bolero jackets.

“Right now, she keeps up with fashion, but she puts it together in her own way,” Custance said. “She really thinks about the details of an outfit — everything from the color, texture to jewelry.”

To O’Looney, fashion is always about changes in history and certain reflections of current society.

“It’s like how spandex came from sports,” O’Looney said. “I drive down Milledge and I see the fashions and the future and what’s the current stamp of approval.”

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