Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me.pdf

Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me.pdf



“Volk weaves together stories about her mother (a great beauty who worked as a hostess at her husband's Garment District restaurant Morgen’s West) and Schiaparelli. The designer was thought of as a belle laide, which translates literally as ‘pretty ugly’ but means a woman who is striking, rather than beautiful. Volk’s mother took her beauty very seriously and considered her face her fortune. The Surrealist-influenced Schiaparelli compensated for her less-than-classically-lovely appearance by becoming a designer whose extreme personal chic and original designs made her a style leader. There are many photographs in the book that depict Volk’s family and Schiaparelli’s friends and pivotal designs. . . . The new book, of course, is encased in a jacket of shocking pink (Schiap’s signature color).” —Women’s Wear Daily
“Novelist and memoirist Volk’s sophisticated vision unfolds with the study of two very different but very glamorous women . . . As funny as it is poignant, Volk’s work employs a combination of words to live by, rich vignettes, and photographs to show how she learned what it meant to be a woman, and how all it takes is one book to transform a young person’s world. Full of high fashion, mink furs, and family, the book manages to weave a tale that is sure to stick with readers long after the last page.” —Melissa Culbertson, Library Journal (starred review)

“At the beginning of Shocked, Volk offers an intriguing premise: that each of us during childhood, usually somewhere between the ages of ten and twelve, happens upon a book whose contents prove transformative. A book that suggests that we need not follow any path in life set before us by parents, teachers, or others in authority, but may instead find both success and happiness by blazing our own trail. At the end of her book, Volk kindly lists some of the transformative books of notable persons. And we learn that for President Barack Obama, that book was The Power Broker by Robert Caro. For his wife Michelle, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; for Hillary Clinton, Orwell’s 1984. And for Elvis, The Prophet. For Steve Jobs it was Moby Dick. In between the premise and the lists, Volk offers the beautifully rendered story of her own life, of her all-important relationship with her mother, and of the book that was, for her, a touchstone.  . . . In a marketplace sodden with memoirs, many of which feature some horrific variant on ‘mother’—crazy mothers, druggy mothers, icy mothers, violent mothers, criminal mothers—Shocked stands out both by virtue of its premise (that wonderful word that carries the idea of ‘defusing’ the impact of the parental bond) and because of the incandescence of its language . . . Shocked is hard to categorize. It is as much a biography of the mother and of the famed designer [Schiaparelli] as it is an autobiography. In the case of each, it is a consideration of the path that that individual had to walk in order to become an adult woman, [and] the cost of each decision made along the way. But while Schiaparelli provides the dream, it is the reality of the toxic relationship between Audrey and Patricia Volk that resonates. . . . It is hard to image that any reader, especially a female reader, will be able to finish Shocked without a match being struck to the dry tinder of their own memories of childhood, setting things ablaze. Shocked is a brilliant thing, well considered, well wrought, and wonderfully well written.” —Vinton Rafe McCabe, New York Journal of Books
“Humor . . . emotional complexity . . . smarts. [Shocked is] a brilliant, boisterous memoir that breaks new ground in terms of the memoir form and also the archetypal story of the mother-daughter bond. Shocked, which comes encased in an eye-popping deep pink book jacket, triumphantly lives up to its title. [It] zig-zags between the two titanic female figures—Volk’s mother and [Elsa] Schiaparelli—who impressed their ideas of beauty and womanhood on her. . . . I cannot tell you, apart from its other virtues, how much fun this memoir is to read. Volk has caught something of Schiaparelli’s surrealist approach to art: Her narrative structure is exuberantly loopy, and the gorgeous color illustrations and photos scattered throughout the book don't just supplement the text, but extend it outward . . . The in-joke photo here of Wallis Simpson posing in Schiaparelli’s ‘lobster dress’ is alone worth the price of this book. Audrey Volk could have easily turned out to be the heavy of this tale and Schiap the madcap mistress of misrule, but Volk is much too nuanced a memoirist to settle for easy categories. Both of her female role models are contradictory, and both give the young Patricia Volk provocatively mixed messages on work, family and how to consciously fashion herself into a woman. With its vivid cover and lush illustrations, Shocked is a physically beautiful book, but like Schiaparelli’s designs, it commands deeper attention because of the wit and originality that inspire its composition.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Many avid readers can name a book they read in their youth that changed how they looked at life. For Volk, growing up in fashionable New York in the 1950s with a beautiful and narcissistic mother, that book was Shocking Life, by the avant-garde couturier Schiaparelli. Finess[ing] a construct that could have been forced, Volk expertly juxtaposes the details of her family’s midcentury Manhattan upper-middle-class life with the life Schiaparelli was leading in Rome and Paris. There, she was an artist as much as a fashion designer, one inspired by friends such as Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp. . . . Volk doesn’t disparage her mother, though she unflinchingly recounts her casual cruelties. The reader is left to wonder, while Audrey moved smoothly through her milieu: what might she have accomplished if all the energy and effort she put into her beauty and self-control had been unleashed?” —Evelyn Theiss, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“When Patricia Volk was 10, she read Shocking Life, the 1954 autobiography of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, which her mother had left on the hall table. It turned her world upside down. Schiaparelli had created a hat out of a shoe. A jacket with drawers for pockets. A long white silk dress painted with a giant red lobster. She made things real that existed only in dreams, writes Volk in her disarming, eccentric memoir. . . . Shocked juxtaposes the lives of the two figures who most shaped her views of what a woman could and should be. Both women were opinionated, secretive, imposing, hot-tempered, charismatic and crazy about clothes. Audrey Morgen Volk was a beauty with a keen eye for fashion, a New Yorker who lived on Riverside Drive and was the stylish hostess at her family’s restaurant in the garment district . . . Schiaparelli lived in Rome and Paris and became the most influential dress designer between the two world wars (along with her rival Coco Chanel); her creations, strongly influenced by Surrealism, crossed the line into art. But while Audrey pursued a genteel existence of ‘safe domesticity’ (and was given to remarks such as, ‘You only get to make a first impression once’), Schiap, as she was called, was ‘alive to newness.’ She loved nothing more than to take risks, the wilder the better. Of course, the young Patricia adored Schiap. What 10-year-old wouldn’t? . . . Volk is thoroughly likable, warm and generous, with a well-tuned ear and a vivid sense of humor. She captures her mother perfectly. . . . There’s a fizzy Mel Brooks daftness to Volk’s prose. . . . [Her] delightful book draws you in right at the start with a scene familiar to many a young girl (including me): a mother’s mystifying rituals at the dressing table, where the adjustable mirrors go on to infinity and the makeup tray contains all manner of alluring substances you’re not supposed to touch.” —Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal
“What’s a 10-year-old girl with an impossibly beautiful, uncompromising and explosive mother to do? Get a second one, which is what Patricia Volk, author of the new memoir Shocked, did. In fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Volk found an inspiring, rule-defying role model. But what makes their relationship—and this book—unusual is that this bond existed only in Volk’s mind and arose after she read Schiap’s biography. . . . Volk was cursed with a beautiful mother . . . and while Audrey was loving and attentive, she also demanded perfection from herself and her children . . . But thanks to Schiaparelli, the author writes, ‘Audrey’s disappointments in me stopped being my disappointments in me. . . .’ For the reader, the beauty of Shocked lies in the details about the two female forces in Patricia Volk’s life . . . Just as the author learned how to be a woman from Audrey and Schiap, you can’t help leaving the book without being influenced by them. You’ll stand a bit straighter, be a bit bolder. Or you might go further and think about whom you’d like to appoint as your second mom.” —Daryl Chen, Dujour

“Part memoir, part biography, Shocked tells the story of two women: the author’s mother, a ‘great beauty’ of 1950s New York who lived by rigid sartorial standards, and Elsa Schiaparelli, the surrealist 1930s designer whose collaborations with the likes of Salvador Dalí revolutionized the fashion industry. . . . Volk [stitches] together a visually evocative coming-of-age story about fashion, femininity, and the often complicated mother-daughter...


Patricia Volk is the author of the memoir Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family and four works of fiction. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Playboy. She lives in New York City.

Chapter One

Everything is mirrors. The legs of the vanity, the vanity itself, the pullout stool. The drawers, drawer pulls, the ivy planters on both ends. The three adjustable face-mirrors that recess behind beveled mirror frames.
Audrey wears her green velvet robe. It grazes her green carpet and matches her green drapes. A broad lace collar frames her face. When she perches on the stool we are almost the same height. I stand behind her to the left. That way I can watch from every angle. I can see her reflection in all three face-mirrors and see the real her too, her flesh-and-blood profile closest to me. I can see four different views of my mother simultaneously. Sometimes, when she adjusts the mirrors, I can see thousands of her, each face nesting a slightly smaller face. The lace vee of her robe gets tiny, tinier, smaller than a stamp, until it vanishes.
“Is there a word for that?” I ask.
“Phantasmagoria, darling,” my mother says.
The mirrored drawers store her tools. The left drawer holds hair-grooming aids: a tortoiseshell comb, her rat tail, a brush, clips, bobby pins, hairpins, brown rubber curlers, perforated aluminum ones. In the middle drawer, she keeps her creams, tonics and astringents. (Soap is the enemy. She does not wash her face. Water touches it only when she swims.) A blue and white box of Kleenex, the cellophane tube of Co-ets (quilted disposable cotton pads), her tweezers, cuticle scissors and emery boards that are made, she has told me, out of crushed garnets, her birthstone. The right-hand drawer (she is right-handed) organizes makeup and—separated from everything else, in its own compartment, her eyelash curler.
Everybody tells me my mother is beautiful. The butcher tells me. The dentist, the doormen, my teachers, cab drivers gaping at her in the rearview mirror as they worry the wheel. Friends from school, friends from camp, camp counselors, the hostess at Schrafft’s. The cashier at Rappaport’s and the pharmacist at Whelan’s, where we get Vicks VapoRub for growing pains. At Indian Walk, the salesman measures my feet for Mary Janes and says, “You have a very beautiful mother, little girl. Do you know that?” When a man tips his hat on Broadway and says, “Mrs. Volk! How lovely to see you!,” my mother says, “Patty, this is Mr. Lazar, a customer of your father’s.” We shake hands. “How do you do, Mr. Lazar?” I say, or “Nice to meet you, Mr. Lazar,” and Mr. Lazar pinches my cheek. “Did anybody ever tell you,” he says, “you have one gorgeous mother?” Thursday nights, when four generations of family gather at my grandmother’s for dinner, the relatives tell my mother, “You look so beautiful tonight, darling.” Then they violate Audrey’s Pronoun Rule: “It is rude to discuss someone who is present using the third person. Never call someone within hearing distance ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Refer to that person by name.” Yet they use “she.” They speak about my mother as if she weren’t there. Right in front of her they say, “Isn’t she beautiful? Did you ever in your life?”
But this face in the mirror right now, people who think my mother is beautiful don’t know this face. I know what my mother looks like without makeup. I know her real face. I know how beautiful she really is.
She spreads two bobby pins with her teeth and pins her hair back. She dips three fingers in a large jar of Pond’s, then creams her face in a circular motion. She plucks four Kleenexes:
and tissues off the Pond’s. Here she sometimes pauses, meets my eyes in the mirror and says, “Never let a man see you with cold cream on your face.” She disposes of remaining shininess using tonic shaken onto a Co-et. Her face is bare, the smooth sleeping face I kiss before leaving for school. Her poreless skin, stretched tight in flat planes, no matter what time of year it is, looks tan.
She dabs on moisturizer and smoothes it in. From the -right--hand drawer, she extracts a white plastic box of Max Factor pancake makeup. Its contents are the color of a -Band--Aid and smell like an attic. Sometimes she calls pancake her “base.” Sometimes it’s “my foundation.” She unscrews the lid and rubs a moist sponge into the color. She makes five smears with the sponge: center of the forehead, both cheeks, tip of nose, chin. Then she begins the work of evening it out, concentrating to make sure the color reaches her hairline and under her chin, and that part of the nose dab is used to lighten the inside corners of her eyes. She is satisfied when her face is all one color, including her lips. This is the moment she stops looking like my mother. This is when her face is reduced to two eyes and two nostrils. It is as flat as the rink at Rockefeller Center. This is when I swear:
“I will never, ever wear makeup, Ma.”
“You’ll change your tune.”
“I won’t.”
She laughs. “We’ll see.”
She slips her base back in the drawer and flips the lid on her cream rouge. She dots her cheekbones and feathers the color. Opening her compact, she pats on powder, focusing on her nose. She inspects herself from all angles. She taps on pale blue eye shadow with her pinky. Her red -mascara--box slides open revealing a black cake and miniature toothbrush. She swirls the brush in a shot glass filled with water then rubs it against the cake. Holding the brush to her lashes, she blinks against it, upper lids first. She freshens her eyebrows with the brush, shaping them and making sure no powder lurks in the hairs. Then it is time for the eyelash curler. The bottom half looks like the grip of scissors. The working end is an eyelash guillotine. She brings the curler up to an eye. She rearranges her lipless mouth into a black “O.” If she blinks or sneezes while curling her eyelashes, the eyelash curler will pull them out. Her eyes will be bald.
She leans so close to the mirror it mists. She opens her eyes wide, angling her lashes into the vise.
“Don’t bump me,” she warns.
We hold our breaths. She clamps down, setting the lashes. We exhale when she releases them and moves to the other eye.
Now she sits back a bit. She analyzes her work. My mother has painted a portrait of her face on top of her face. My mother is a painting. She takes the pins out of her hair and drops them in the pin drawer. She shakes her blondish hair out and fluffs her fingers through it. If it is Saturday, there’s a chance her nails haven’t chipped yet. She gets them done Fridays for the weekend and even though she is careful, sometimes they chip. When that happens, she blurts a woeful “Darn!” and it breaks my heart.
Finally, she is ready to apply her lipstick, the only color she wears: Elizabeth Arden’s “Sky Blue Pink.” Stretching a smile, my mother paints her lips back on. She mashes them together then blots them on a folded tissue:
She reapplies the “Sky Blue Pink,” blotting one last time.
“If you blot twice,” she instructs, “you can eat a frankfurter and your lipstick still won’t come off.”
Once her lips pass inspection, she is ready to ask me to leave her room. Audrey does not wish to be seen getting dressed. She does not wish to be seen in her underthings. I have seen her in a bathing suit at the beach and once by accident in a full slip while waiting for her at the dressmaker’s. I have never seen her body. My sister says when she’s dead we’ll strip her and see everything. I don’t want to. One morning at breakfast, Audrey’s bathrobe buckled between the buttons and I saw something she would not have wanted me to see. I was miserable.
She adjusts the mirrors and turns her face from side to side. She smiles, raises an eyebrow and flirts with herself. She inspects her teeth for lipstick. When she is satisfied, she reaches for one of the two bottles on top of her vanity. During the day, she opts for the larger one. This bottle is five and a half inches tall and filled with yellow eau de cologne. The top, electric pink, looks like Ali Baba’s hat. The bottle has breasts. The woman who made the bottle, a sculptor named Leonor Fini, modeled it on the mannequin of a Hollywood movie star. The movie star’s name is Mae West. In summer camp, we wear orange canvas flotation vests the RAF nicknamed Mae Wests that make us look busty like the bottle. We pose like calendar girls with our hands behind our heads. Wiggling our hips we chant:
Knit one
Purl two
Mae West
Woo! Woo!
When she is going out for the evening, my mother uses the smaller version of the bottle. This one contains perfume the color of whiskey. It is three inches high and rests on a gold-and-pink velvet pedestal. The bottle is covered by a clear glass dome made in Bohemia, a miniature version of the kind taxidermists use to protect stuffed owls. White lace is printed around the base of the dome and it’s raised, you can feel it with your fingertips. The neck of the bottle, where it meets the round gold head of the -frosted--glass dauber, is wrapped with a choker of gold cord. The cord is sealed with a membrane called onionskin that rips the first time the bottle is used. Draped over the cord is a minuscule measuring tape made of cloth. It hangs from behind the mannequin’s neck and crosses over the front of the bottle where a navel would be. Here a small metallic seal with the letter “S” in the c...

 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

How does a girl fashion herself into a woman? In this richly illustrated memoir, writer Patricia Volk juxtaposes her two childhood idols to find her answer. Her mother, Audrey, was an upper-middle-class New Yorker and a great beauty—meticulously groomed, proudly conventional. Elsa Schiaparelli was an avant-garde fashion designer whose creations broke every rule and elevated clothing into art. While growing up in Audrey's strict household, Patricia read Schiap's freewheeling autobiography and was transformed by it.
            Shocked weaves Audrey's traditional notions of domesticity with Schiap's often outrageous ideas, giving us a revelatory meditation on beauty and on being a daughter, sister, and mother—and demonstrating, meanwhile, how a single book can change a life. 


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