Talking Fashion, Literature, and Form with Professor Baudot
EMORY MCCOOL //
Laura Baudot is an Associate Professor of English at Oberlin College. She earned her BA at Wellesley College and her PhD from Princeton University.
What do you teach and what are your academic interests?
LB: I teach 18th century literature, mainly. My academic interests are in that period, but also the fields of aesthetics, intellectual history, history of science, and visual cultural.
How would you describe your approach to your scholarship and to literary theory in general?
LB: I have tended to do interdisciplinary work, so literary history and relationship to history and science or visual culture. Lately, I’m really interested in thinking about autobiographical approaches to literary criticism. One of the imperatives of literary criticism is that we historicize and consider the context. I’m experimenting with a way of historicizing that takes into account the individual literary critic’s own personal history and layers that on top of literary analysis.
Which college course most influenced you? Which was your favorite?
LB: The college course that most influenced me was a class on Russian modernism. We started with Chekov and read up through 20th century things like Bely’s St. Petersburg. I mean, obviously I’m not teaching Russian literature, and I didn’t go on to do a PhD in Russian, but for the first time I understood the ways in which stories are about stories. Stories are not just about content, but they’re also about the way they’re told. My favorite course was a course in Cinema Studies about Film Noir. I really loved taking Geology, too. I felt like it was a science that was historical.
What’s one course that you’ve taught at Oberlin that you really love?
LB: I love teaching 299 [Intro to Advanced Study of Literature] because I can teach outside of my field. Increasingly what I love about it is that the things that we’re reading are about aesthetic experience, what the nature of our relationship to art is and how our relationship to art becomes a way of thinking about our relationship to other people. The ethical implications of aesthetic experience.
How would you describe your personal style or fashion sense?
LB: I can’t say that I have a fashion personality - like edgy or vintage or eclectic. It’s more about playing a game with trends. So following trends at a distance where I can still exert my own agency. Also when I think about both my outfits and my clothes I think in terms of a gestalt approach. I think about how the parts add up to equal more than just the sum of the parts, how the parts add up to a whole. I know that sounds very abstract; I like playing with proportions, I like layering, I like it to have an architectural quality. And I think about how similar that is to literary form.
Who is your fashion icon?
LB: I’m going to answer that more in terms of a fashion icon not just being someone whose clothes you want to have, but who feeds the longing. So if interest in fashion is partly fueled for that longing for something that can never quite be satisfied or fantasy, I would say that my fashion icon is someone I grew up seeing every summer; she’s a cousin on my French side by marriage and her name is Maryse Gaspard. She was a model for Pierre Cardin and then was in charge of his haute couture. For me, someone who lived in the suburbs and spent the summer in small towns in France, she was this impossibly glamorous figure who first fed that longing. She’s not someone whose style I could ever copy, but she has an otherworldly fashion quality.
Favorite author? Book?
LB: Again in terms of formative favorite – I’d have to say Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It was both formative and a book I think about so often. It’s an encyclopedic account of literary sensibility, what it means to go through the world with a literary sensibility. That’s a thing that speaks to me so profoundly. I also love anything that the philosopher and literary historian Charles Taylor writes.
My guilty pleasure read is fashion magazines, for sure. I can’t really read bad writing with pleasure, but I can consume visual guilty pleasures. It’s about the images, about looking at pretty things and novelty. Although I probably kind of like reading self-help, that’s kind of a guilty pleasure.
Favorite fashion trend of the last five years?
LB: I’ve got a lot of those. So white shoes, specifically white sneakers. Jumpsuits. The new, more relaxed silhouette. Pleated pants. The bodysuit plus baggy pant, so an 80s look. It’s so interesting, you can tell there’s a fatigue with one trend and then you have to go to the other extreme.
Least favorite fashion trend?
LB: I understand it, and sometimes I think I’m a victim of it too, but I think it’s lamentable the ways that we can become slaves to jean fashion trends. Sometimes, and I know this is going to sound conservative, they’re unflattering in ways that mess with the silhouette. Even if at first I don’t like a trend my eyes adjust, and I start liking it. I might think: “Okay, I’m not going there. I’m just not doing that one.” But then eventually it’ll creep in.
Favorite trend in literary criticism?
LB: I was really relieved when the pendulum swung from ideology critique back to questions of literary form. It’s probably been happening since the 90s in some form, but there was a real marked increase in discussions of literary form and what literary-ness is. After the extreme of seeing literature as a vehicle for discussing how ideology works, I like reading criticism in the vein that I like writing it: criticism related to intellectual history or history of aesthetics. I’m interested in the cognitive science literary criticism, the joining of forces.
In what way or ways has your style changed over time? Any consistencies?
LB: The thing that I’ve been drawn to since the age of ten are puffed sleeves. I can’t really get away from them. And belts. I know that this is partly my fashion blind spot, but I just love them. I try to do the puffed sleeve not in a ridiculously girly way, especially in my age and my profession. I may opt for a more avant-garde, architecturally interesting voluminous sleeve. But still, it’s the puffed sleeve. At its heart, it’s the puffed sleeve.
You said in your profession, do you, or have you in the past felt pressure to change your style or to change what you wear on a daily basis?
LB: No. That’s one of the things I love about this job. You have so much, at least I have felt, that you have a lot of freedom to express yourself in your clothes. It is a kind of language, it’s an embodied language. That said, sometimes in the beginning of the semester I try to be less showy in what I wear.
Do you think your style reflects anything about your personality? Your scholarship? If so, what?
LB: I think an interest in form, definitely. I love thinking about how stories are constructed. Again, how the parts add up to something, how there’s patterning, echoing. I think about how a raw edge on a sleeve might echo the raw edge on a hem. It’s an interest in the craft of putting things together.
Contact contributing writer Emory McCool at firstname.lastname@example.org.