Adele Kudish – work-in-progress

As an English professor, I have long appreciated the importance of teaching the humanities in my college courses, and have encouraged students to engage with literary works so as to better understand themselves and the world around them. But it is true that many literature professors, myself included, do not systematically attend to the topic of poverty in these courses, although it is found in literary texts from around the world and throughout literary history.
I have been shy to talk about poverty in my courses; money is such a taboo topic. While “class” frequently comes up as a subject, I realized that in the past I had somehow dissected poverty out of the conversation, focusing either on “labor”—and somehow leaving money out of it—or on the wealthy end of the class discussion. Moreover, institutionally and culturally, we have been encouraged and supported to address issues of race and gender, but less so class in recent years.
At the same time, I am professionally interested in the question of money in literature. I have been working on a book project that for a time I vaguely referred to as being about “women and money,” but which now has been narrowed down to an investigation of the literary representations of women working on the margins (and yet the center) of the fashion and garment industries, as seamstresses, piece workers, textile workers, models, and saleswomen, and they ways in which they are depicted in late 19th and early 20th century novels and short stories as both producers of commodities and as consumers. It turns out that literary works are not actually that reluctant to discuss money. Balance sheets, receipts, and invoices are often present in realist fiction, and they are often about the production or acquisition of fabric and clothing.
I would like to work on integrating some of this research into the syllabus for my special topics elective, “Literature and Fashion” (English 350). 
I want to do this in two ways: first, through (re)framing poverty with my students in fictional or poetry texts that I already teach (e.g. The Ladies’ Paradise, The House of Mirth, The Overcoat, “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith,” etc.), and second, through the integration of more non-fiction texts (historical documents or philosophy treatises, for example—I do already teach some sociology and history articles, but as stand-alone texts) that I would pair with the literary texts. 
I am still trying to concretize the second part of this, in which I use the non-fiction humanities text in conjunction with the literary, but I definitely think that more contextualization of the literary works would make for a richer experience in the course for my students and myself.


  • Cara O'Connor

    Adele, this is such an amazing-sounding class. Including non-fiction texts that can give context or depth to a discussion about fiction sounds like a great idea, but, as you say, also a challenging one when there is so much to learn in terms of techniques for reading and appreciating fiction.

    What would you think about adding some easy-to-read ethics articles in week 14 and 15. These might not be complex enough, but here are a couple from Prindle Post:

    Also, WEEK 3 – REPUTATION MANAGEMENT seems like a great place to have deeper discussions about poverty and fashion.

    You mention using images, and I’m thinking you have in mind archival images. I wonder if you could use images from the more recent past, say, images related to dressing in ways that symbolize one’s own poverty, precarity, or solidarity with the precarious working class, and then the marketing of all that, and how it intersects with reputation management. I’m thinking about Art Workers Union (see Julia Bryan Wilson’s Art Workers) and also about hip hop fashion.

    To me, a provocative question is “who can safely dress ‘poor’”? I recall my own 1990s art-school days with my ripped jeans and second-hand clothes, and wonder about what drew me to this mode of fashion and how much of my own middle class white privilege allowed me to feel safe and comfortable dressing that way?

    I’m also thinking about the stereotype image of a poor person who dresses in “rags” because they have no choice and a philosopher/religious person who does so by choice, and how people in poverty are often read as doing things (eating a certain way, dressing a certain way) because they have no choice. Which is another kind of injustice at one level, even while at another level being true (the having constrained choices part), and could be something to discuss in a class on fashion and literature.

    The 19th century need in England for a white linen shirt (as mentioned by John Stuart Mill, Martha Nussbaum, Sen, and others) is used as an example of the way poverty is relative to the society one is in, but in a “fast fashion” culture one might argue that a person’s poverty and their ability to dress well are no longer related.

    Just a bunch of thoughts. Thanks for sharing your work-in-progress!


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