by Jennifer Ellis
Creative edits by: Jasmy Liu
Every day, each person in the world wakes up and prepares to take on their unique day ahead. On a day full of decisions, one of the first choices made is what to wear. With over 50,000 students at the University of Texas at Austin, just walking down Speedway gives you the opportunity to see diversity in the way people dress.
While students spend the day sitting among a sea of other people in classes, how do you think it would feel to be the professor? When students wake up in the mornings, the concern of having hundreds of eyes on you for at least an hour isn’t really at the forefront. However, professors deal with this scenario on a daily basis. When this decision of what to wear is presented to each professor in the mornings, each one responds differently according to their unique style and personality.
Kate Biberdorf, Stephen Sonnenberg, Gail Chovan, and Thomas Garza were four of the professors suggested when UT students were asked who they considered the “best-dressed.” I had the pleasure to get to know these professors and get a closer look at their take on style, and Spark is here to share their stories.
Spark Magazine: When I reached out to fellow students about the “best-dressed professors,” you were recommended. How does that make you feel? Have students commented on your style before or were you unaware?
Gale Chovan: Yes, my students comment on my style all the time. They notice what I wear, down to the shoes…my shoe game is strong. Generally, in my life, I have always paid careful attention to the clothes I wear.
Stephen Sonnenberg: Funny you should ask, just yesterday in a seminar a student commented on how I’m always well-dressed, and from time to time, other students have commented similarly. I dress that way out of respect for the fact that I and my students are engaged in a very serious learning exercise, and I feel I should dress appropriately to set the tone for serious discourse. I also always remember what Chancellor McRaven said in a speech at UT about starting the day by making your bed. I’d say the same thing about careful, proper dress, it sets the tone for your thinking and feeling all day long.
SM: How would you describe your style?
Kate Biberdorf: I love pencil skirts and heels. I feel feminine and powerful whenever I wear a brightly colored skirt with a classic pair of pumps. My team always jokes that they can hear me charging down the hall because I am the only one in the building that wears heels.
Thomas Garza: I’m not sure that I have an identifiable “style,” although a former student of mine is now editor-in-chief at GQ Russia, and he frequently remarks that my look is “academic.” I’m not sure what that means, though. I like to wear blazers and, since I was a grad student, I always wear a tie (straight, bolo, or bow) when I teach or present. My father, who was a men’s clothing retailer, always wore a tie and instilled in me a sense that, to be taken seriously, we (Mexican-American men) needed to “dress for the job we wanted.” I guess that stuck, although a lot of successful academics I know don’t wear a jacket and tie to teach! After all of these years, I don’t know if I could do otherwise.
SS: I do try to wear clothing that conveys not just seriousness, but also joy in being on campus, being at UT, joy in learning!
GC: Thinking outside of the box. People always say, “I love that outfit, but where would I wear it?” I always say, “I wear it to Whole Foods, I’ll wear it anywhere!”
SM: What is your favorite piece of clothing you own? Why?
KB: I have a serious obsession with shoes. I recently purchased my very first pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, and I am in love with them. I made a promise to myself when I was 18 years old that I would buy a designer pair of heels when I finally had a reasonable income. I almost cried in the store when I walked away with two pairs of shoes!
TG: Black jeans. They go with everything. They’re very comfortable, and they can be very casual or dressy, depending what you wear with them.
GC: My dad’s long underwear shirt from probably the 1950s that is so soft and full of holes. It’s like the epitome of deconstruction.
SS: Probably the tuxedo I wore at the wedding of one of my children, they are now as old as the parents of most UT undergraduates. I have four grandchildren in college. I hope I get to wear that tuxedo when those grandchildren start to marry. I think it is interesting that my paternal grandfather manufactured tuxedos in the 1930s. Maybe that has something to do with why I think dressing properly is important.
SM: Do you have any stories of how wearing one of your favorite outfits made you more confident/happy, or vice versa (a bad outfit ruining your day)?
KB: I recently wore a shirt that was too short for the skirt. During lecture, the shirt kept popping out, and it was distracting me from teaching. I was worried that the students could see my stomach, and I did not want to look sloppy or unprofessional. I know it’s a small thing, but it’s important for me to set a good example for my students.
GC: I think everybody has those days when you wake up, and you put something on, and you get to where you’re going, and you’re like, “What was I thinking?” It’s usually not the individual garment, but maybe I ate too much the night before, or maybe I wasn’t thinking when I put the top with the pants that ride up. It’s just those kinds of moments, and then I’m uncomfortable all day.
SM: For professors, dressing up is a part of the job. Do you think students should be required to look more professional for class? Do you think dressing up for class would impact attentiveness/grades?
TG: I definitely do not think that there should ever be a requirement to dress up for class or that there should be any kind of dress code for university students. First and foremost, I want students in my classes to be at ease and comfortable in that environment. If that means dressing up to make themselves feel good, then terrific. If that means wearing a t-shirt and flip-flops, that’s fine, too. We as faculty certainly don’t all dress the same for our classes, and I don’t think that students should, either. How we all chose to dress does, I believe, affect the way we feel about ourselves and how we interact with those around us. However, I don’t think that there’s any kind of viable correlation between “dressing for success” and grades.
SM: Why do you think the clothes you wear are important?
TG: They’re part of the image you decide you want to portray, and — given that you have to stand in front of 200-300 students in some classes — I think it’s only appropriate to be reasonably dressed since they have to watch you for 75 minutes! But for me personally, my clothes help me “get in character” for my classes. I think of my lectures as small “performances” and try to make them as memorable as possible. That includes dressing for them.
KB: I want my students to see that it is 100% fine to be feminine and a scientist. I absolutely hate that smart women are always depicted as frumpy or unattractive on TV. I am on a mission to show the next generation of students a different version of a scientist. Research has shown that people will make a judgment about a stranger within a few seconds of meeting them. Unfortunately, how you look and what you wear is part of that equation.
“Best-dressed” is a term that has no set definition. There are no tools or tests to measure how well someone is dressed, simply because style is subjective to the eye of the beholder. As we can see from the diverse group of professors interviewed, they each have their own unique experiences that shape their taste in fashion. When you wake up tomorrow and start your day deciding what to wear, I hope the stories of these professors encourage you to be confident in your uniqueness and rock whatever you feel like wearing, whether that’s sweatpants or a suit! •
Originally from a small town named after a fruit (Orange), Jennifer Ellis is grateful to be pursuing her passions in the city of Austin. She is a first-year Public Relations major, with a Business minor. This is Jennifer’s first semester with Spark, and she is so honored to work with such a creative, inspiring and talented community.