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From the acclaimed author of Stuffed: an intimate, richly illustrated memoir, written with charm and panache, that juxtaposes two fascinating lives—the iconoclastic designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the author’s own mother—to explore how a girl fashions herself into a woman.
Audrey Morgen Volk, an upper-middle-class New Yorker, was a great beauty and the polished hostess at her family’s garment district restaurant. Elsa Schiaparelli—“Schiap”—the haute couture designer whose ...
From the acclaimed author of Stuffed: an intimate, richly illustrated memoir, written with charm and panache, that juxtaposes two fascinating lives—the iconoclastic designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the author’s own mother—to explore how a girl fashions herself into a woman.
Audrey Morgen Volk, an upper-middle-class New Yorker, was a great beauty and the polished hostess at her family’s garment district restaurant. Elsa Schiaparelli—“Schiap”—the haute couture designer whose creations shocked the world, blurred the line between fashion and art, and believed that everything, even a button, has the potential to delight.
Audrey’s daughter Patricia read Schiap’s autobiography, Shocking Life, at a tender age, and was transformed by it. These two women—volatile, opinionated, and brilliant each in her own way—offered Patricia contrasting lessons about womanhood and personal style that allowed her to plot her own course.
Moving seamlessly between the Volks’ Manhattan and Florida milieux and Schiap’s life in Rome and Paris (among friends such as Dalí, Duchamp, and Picasso), Shocked weaves Audrey’s traditional notions of domesticity with Schiaparelli’s often outrageous ideas into a marvel-filled, meditation on beauty, and on being a daughter, sister, and mother, while demonstrating how a single book can change a life.
“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 dynamic.” —Bronwyn Barnes, Entertainment Weekly
“Warm, funny, sharp-eyed . . . Volk’s beautiful mother is all about form, appearances, doing things right. . . . The unbeautiful Schiap turns rules on their head. . . . ‘Schiap planted the idea that imagination trumped beauty, that being different might be a virtue,’ Volk says. And that there is, after all, more than one way to be a woman.” —Amanda Lovell, More Magazine
“Beauty can be a beast. That’s one message from Volk’s smart, fascinating book about her complex relationship with her beautiful, elegantly attired, hypercritical mother. . . . To facilitate the tricky business of capturing both her mother's beauty and less lovely side, Volk turns to a surprising foil: Shocking Life, the 1954 memoir by avant-garde couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. This was one of many books young Patty snatched from the pile that commandeered her mother’s attention every afternoon when she returned from hostessing at the family restaurant, Morgen’s. ‘I want to know what is in those books that is better than spending time with me,’ Volk writes. . . . Shocking Life became for Volk what she calls her all-important ‘transformative book,’ encountered at just the right time, prepuberty. . . .[Volk’s] Shocked is rich in quirky, affectionate details, amusing family photos, and pictures of Schiaparelli’s fantastic surrealist designs. But on a deeper level, Volk’s concern is with the options open to pre-feminist women. ‘My dazzling mother could have been anything. What stopped her?’ she wonders, as she contrasts her mother’s cautious life, ‘blinkered by convention’ and devoted to arduously preserving her looks, with that of daring Schiaparelli. It’s fortunate for both Volk and her readers that with the help of Schiaparelli’s iconoclastic example, she found the courage to break rules. . . . [A] stylish coming-of-age tale.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Bestselling author Volk is at the top of her game with this witty, nostalgic look at womanhood and style. She juxtaposes remembrances of her beautiful mother with the life of an iconic Italian fashion designer in a way that’s charming and wholly original. More than 100 images of fashion, art, and family make for a treat.” —Reader’s Digest
“Rich with memory and history, Shocked is more than just biography. Through the experiences of Volk’s mother and Schiaparelli, Shocked looks at the limited options available to women in the moment before feminism opened the world of opportunity to them. Volk’s mother was known for her beauty . . . and appearances were everything to Audrey. [But] Volk often rebelled against her mother’s strictures. In Shocked, descriptions of Audrey alternate with sections about Schiaparelli. Their lives often overlapped, and Schiaparelli’s perfume in its distinctive bottle was Volk’s mother’s signature scent. .. . . Schiaparelli palled around with Duchamp, Dalí, and other famous artists, and she incorporated surrealism into her designs. She was behind many of the ‘modern’ ideas of the 20th century—everything from the knitted hat she dubbed a Mad Cap to underwear for women that didn’t require ironing . . . . Volk did copious research including traveling to Paris to visit Schiaparelli’s 21 Place Vendôme atelier. . . . [She] displays rigorous (though never gratuitous or malicious) honesty [and] an unsentimental tone—not one word feels dubious or coy.” —Natalie Danford, Publishers Weekly Author Profile
“Shocked links the lives of the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and her mother, Audrey Morgen Volk, a glamorous woman who worked in the family’s restaurant. The author credits these two very different women, each very opinionated, with inspiring her own ideas about personal style and womanhood. Volk again portrays her family with great humor and love.” —Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week
“Presenting an unusual memoir, Volk writes eloquently of her mother, a very fashionable, well-off Manhattanite, and of another woman of fashion who also influenced Volk’s life, who happened to be her mother’s polar opposite, Elsa Schiaparelli, the famous Parisian couturier and devil-may-care pal of artists Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau (and others). Young Volk secretly read Shocking Life, Schiaparelli’s autobiography, imbibing with gusto the scent of a risky life. She used both women—both polestars—in leading her to becoming a writer. Progressing through both women’s lives, Volk’s chapters center on one specific topic per chapter: gambling, and attitudes toward clothing and sex. . . . The contrast between Audrey and Elsa couldn’t be more startling or poignant . . . but parallels also abound, and through Volk’s history and memories, we get the best of both women and their impact on the author.” —Barbara Jacobs, Booklist
“It will never be known if the dual subjects of Volk’s latest memoir, Shocked, would have liked each other had they met, but they had at least one thing in common: They captivated and inspired the author. Volk’s gorgeous socialite mother, Audrey, exhibited a ‘“buttoned up,” edited to the bone’ look that radiated ‘high-polished meticulosity.’ She worshipped at the altar of seemliness [and] prized convention and domesticity . . . On the other hand, Italian-born design rebel Elsa Schiaparelli was a Coco Chanel rival whose fearless approach to art, style, and life broke—smashed—all the rules, whether she was inventing a backless swimsuit or amusing party guests with a hot air balloon in her apartment building’s courtyard. . . . We feel life’s potential swirling around Volk as she lovingly chronicles the unique paths of her two muses. Volk ultimately embraces her mother’s love, but is now also able to break free, to see ‘the ripe kaleidoscopic pure pleasure of looking,’ Schiap-style.” —Diane Goodman, O, The Oprah Magazine
“Volk has a talent for unearthing meaning in the seemingly mundane. She works off the theory that everyone reads one influential book before puberty that leaves an indelible mark. Hers was Shocking Life, outré fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s memoir, filched from a shelf before her voracious reader of a mother (deemed beautiful by everyone from the dentist to the hostess at Schrafft’s) could return it to the Upper West Side bookstore where she ‘rented’ books. This is no soft-focus hagiography, however. Volk is cheerfully honest about her mother’s concern with what others think of her, and she bluntly calls Schiaparelli ‘a terrible mother.’ Including both personal photographs and depictions of Schiaparelli inventions such as women’s underpants that didn’t require ironing, this memoir is a compelling tribute to two ambitious women who were way ahead of their time.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Witty, tender and vividly nostalgic. . . . a spirited account of how an encounter with a memoir by couturier Elsa Schiaparelli transformed a young girl’s view of what it meant to be a woman. Volk adored her movie-star gorgeous mother Audrey. However, even as a child, she could never quite countenance the ‘blind adherence to the mystifying virtue of ‘seemly’ (female) behavior’ that Audrey demanded of her. She unexpectedly found [a] more subversive model for feminine behavior in Schiaparelli, whose autobiography Volk read at age 10. Like the author, ‘Schiap’ was a much-loved child. . . . [and] no great beauty, something Volk also understood. Yet she still managed to create an enduring legacy as an avant-garde fashion designer . . . Schiaparelli’s remarkable story provided Volk the ‘shock’ she needed to grow away from Audrey’s certitudes—about everything from clothes to men to life itself—and into her own, unique sensibilities. . . . Generously illustrated with images from the two worlds Volk depicts, the narrative that emerges from Volk’s deft interweaving of lives is as sharp-eyed as it is wickedly funny. Her attention to detail, especially in her evocations of 1950s New York, is nothing short of delicious.” —Kirkus
“This daring and irresistible catalog of the secrets of women cements Volk’s reputation as one of our most amusing writers. What in academic circles might be called ‘the construction of gender’ is here brought vividly and hilariously to life. If God is in the details, then this is one of the godliest books I’ve read in ages, because the details are priceless.” —Phillip Lopate
“You have to be very grown up to write a memoir as wise as Shocked. It helps to have a prose style as supple, elegant, witty, and modest as Patricia Volk’s. This is a truthful, wholly original portrayal of mother-daughter love, and (incidentally) of the joys and limitations of a passion for fashion. It deserves to become a classic.” —Kennedy Fraser
“Volk expresses a touch of heroine-worship for both her mother’s glamorous pragmatism and Elsa Schiaparelli’s functional extravagance. The women make an unlikely pair, but Volk’s nostalgic voice wisely integrates the best of them both. It does so with such engaging generosity and kindness that this funny, melancholic memoir ultimately feels like an embrace.” —Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree
“An epic tale of love and liberation, which is to say a mother/daughter story. Patricia Volk is a wonder, and this memoir is as charming and wise as her larger-than-life mother.” —Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life
“It’s a pure joy to be in Patricia Volk’s presence on the pages of her new book, Shocked. A diptych portrayal of her gorgeous and infuriating mother and the great fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, this is an irresistible tour de force that puts on display Volk’s intelligence, wit and sparkling prose.” —Louis Begley
Verdict Perfect for anyone who loved Volk’s first autobiographical effort, Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, or who enjoys the work of memoirists like Jeannette Walls or Grace Coddington.—Melissa Culbertson, Homewood, IL
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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.”
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:
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 center holds the tape together. Tucked under the tape at the back of the frosted dauber are glass flowers—baby blue, pink, red, yellow, and sometimes dark blue—with contrasting glass stamens and two green glass leaves, all hand-blown on the island of Murano. The flowers are pierced by wires covered with green florist’s tape and twisted into a nosegay until the stems join in a point.
The bottle, its dome and its pedestal are packaged in a box that opens like a bound book. Its green velvet spine is stamped in gold with the name of the perfume and the woman who made it, the perfume’s title and author. The perfume and its box are called a “perfume presentation.” You could slip the presentation between two books on a shelf and no one would know it -wasn’t a book. My mother says the perfume is manufactured in a mansion not far from Paris. She says each bottle has twenty separate parts made in three different countries and takes thirty ladies to assemble. My mother touches the long frosted dauber to her pulse points—the places blood flows closest to the skin, hence her warmest external places, where the scent heats most and disperses widest—the inside of her wrists, behind her ears, and the backs of her knees. In the evening, if she is going out, she dabs below her neck.
When she leaves the apartment, I play games with the bottle. I dress up in her green velvet robe, lift the flowers out of the measuring tape and pretend a man is giving them to me: “Why, monsieur! Merci for zee lovely bouquet! Ooo-la-la!” I pretend I am selling the bottle to a famous customer in my fancy French store: “Madame would perhaps care to buy zee perfume, oui oui?” or that the bottle is a movie star and she needs my opinion.
The name of the perfume is “Shocking.” It is made by Elsa Schiaparelli (ski-ah-pa-raY-lee). I know it is special. Every year on my mother’s birthday, my father gives it to her, every January 21 the same gift. Late at night, after closing our family’s restaurant, he opens the door to our bedroom. “Get up, girls!” He shakes my sister and me awake. We follow him down the hall, past the locked linen closet, into their bedroom so we can witness the event. Every year my mother is surprised. Every year she is thrilled.
“Oh, Cecil!” She clasps her hands under her chin. “Really, you are much too extravagant!”
She throws her arms around his neck and kisses him. She raises one foot behind her, pointing her toe like she does when they dance. She balances against him, smiling down at her daughters. “Girls, I hope you know: Your father is the most generous man in the world!”
Then my father says to us: “Isn’t your mother the most beautiful woman in the world?”
“Yes.” We nod then pad back to bed.
“Shocking,” the smell of my mother.
Always the perfume comes gift-wrapped. My father makes the paper himself. He uses Scotch tape and as many hundred-dollar bills as it takes to get the job done.
A conversation with Patricia Volk author of SHOCKED: MY MOTHER, SCHIAPARELLI, AND ME
Q: When did you first become interested in Elsa Schiaparelli?
A: When I was little, my father gave my mother the same birthday present every year. He would come home late at night then wake my sister and me up to witness the presentation of this most important gift. The present was always the same—a bottle of Elsa Schiaparelli's "Shocking" perfume. Dad made the wrapping paper himself using as many hundred dollar bills as it took to get the job done. I loved to watch my mother apply the perfume to her "pulse points" with a crystal dauber, the final touch of her elaborate maquillage. She would tell me how it took thirty people in Paris to assemble each intricate bottle and that the bottle was created by a famous sculptor who based it on the figure of the movie star Mae West. I thought "Shocking" was the most precious thing our family owned and when my mother went out, I staged complex games with the bottle. In this way, I was primed to believe that Elsa Schiaparelli was a most important person.
Q: What gave you the idea to write a book that would juxtapose Schiaparelli's life and views on womanhood and beauty with those of your mother, Audrey Volk?
A: I grew up comparing my mother to Schiaparelli or "Schiap" as she preferred to be called. Audrey was "proper" and Schiap loved to shock. One thought imagination was the enemy, one lived largely in her head. In 2003, the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a Schiaparelli retrospective. A beautiful book was made to complement the show. Since I was always talking about Schiap, a friend gave it to me. Then I couldn't stop thinking about her. Around this time, my mother got sick. I asked her if I could have an old bottle of Shocking she'd kept. I opened it, took a whiff and my childhood came flooding back. I went on eBay and found Schiap's autobiography, Shocking Life, which I'd read when I was ten. I read it again and was indeed shocked. I saw the profound effect that book had had on my life. But rereading it now, so many years later, I saw Schiaparelli in an utterly different way. Much went over my head when I was ten.
Q: You pepper this book with words of wisdom from both your mother and Schiap. Are there a few enduring pieces of advice or specific lessons on life, love, and beauty that still stand out for you as good rules to live by?
A: Both believed if you don't have a ton of money, then buy one best thing. Both believed in the importance of good manners. My mother taught me the secrets of buying a fur coat, never to let a man see you with cold cream on your face, and that men don't like women who pursue them. She also told me it was impossible for men and women to be friends. Schiap showed me that men could be good friends. Both women reinforced the value of reading and the necessity of time spent alone. Both believed in paying their bills. My mother was totally risk-averse and fiscally conservative and gave me good money advice. Schiap's best lesson was the value of running with an idea, something my mother did not approve of.
Q: These are two formidable women, one who warns you to "never leave a hat on a bed" and one who makes a hat out of a shoe. Both brilliant, both opinionated, with very different ideas about the norms of womanhood and physical presentation. Had Audrey Volk and Elsa Schiaparelli met, what do you think they'd have thought of one another?
A: I imagine them noticing each other across the room at a cocktail party. Schiap thinks my mother is beautiful though too conservatively dressed. She admires my mother's meticulous grooming and posture. She observes that my mother is slender, something very important to Schiap, who starved herself and insisted the women who wore her clothes be bony. For breakfast Schiap had a cup of warm water with a slice of lemon. When my mother spots Schiap, she rolls her eyes at Schiap's windmill hat, black suede gloves with red snakeskin fingernails and a dress that looks like torn flesh. My mother calls these "notice-me" clothes and is highly critical of women who work overtime to get attention. She thinks Schiap could use a good dermatologist. Schiap was born with a face full of raised dark moles. Then they are introduced, Schiap with a martini and a Gauloise in a gold cigarette holder, my mother with a whiskey sour and a Pall Mall. Whatever Schiap says, my mother takes the opposite position. They fall in love with each other's quick minds and wit. My mother invites Schiap to our family restaurant in the Garment Center, where Schiap has an office around the corner. They make a date to play bridge.
Q: At the end of this book you say that "Schiap planted the idea that imagination trumped beauty," and the last line brings this home by saying her autobiography helped you realize "Anything is possible." How has that idea informed your life and your work?
A: I believe almost all limitations are self-imposed. The most valuable thing we have on earth, perhaps the only thing that really belongs to us, the thing that makes us who we are, is our imagination. It must be honored.
Posted January 10, 2014
This book is a 360 degree experience. The cover and illustrations are almost as richly entertaining and engrossing as the text. You'll never lend this to anyone. I almost want to put it on my coffee table.
It's a moving story, and this writer is able to evoke the period skillfully. It's like reading a movie.
Posted November 18, 2013
No text was provided for this review.
Posted April 7, 2013
No text was provided for this review.