The Art of Being a Woman – Patricia Volk

If you ever worn anything shocking pink or a jumper with a bow knitted into the front of it or carried a shoulder bag or admired Carrie’s newspaper print dress in Sex and the City then you’ve worn/drooled over something invented by or influenced by the designs of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Despite having died in 1973, Schiparelli is having a bit of a moment. Christian Lacroix recently launched an 18-piece capsule collection as a tribute to her; in 2014 new haute couture and ready-to-wear collections in Schiparelli’s name will be launched by Tod’s, and earlier this year Hutchinson published Patricia Volk’s memoir The Art of Being a Woman, in which she discusses her discovery of Schiparelli’s own memoir Shocking Life and how it helped Volk understand her mother better.

Patricia Volk’s mother is Audrey. She is beautiful, so everyone tells Patricia. But Patricia knows at what price this beauty is achieved:

The mirrored drawers [of her vanity] 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 aluminium 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) organises makeup and – separated from everything else, in its own compartment, her eyelash curler.

Patricia also knows:

I can’t be like her. I don’t want to be like her. Much of what she thinks is important, I don’t. There has to be more than one way to be a woman. And if there is more than one way, chances are there are many.

Luckily for Volk, both her mother and Cecil Sussman Volk, her father, are avid readers. ‘Books are everywhere’ and it is a book that will give Patricia her answers as to how to be a woman:

My mother wears “Shocking” perfume by Elsa Schiaparelli. And the book that defuses her, the book that transforms me, is Shocking Life by Elsa Schaparelli.

The majority of the book then is taken up with Volk sharing her mother’s views and lifestyle alongside the ideas Schiaparelli covers in Shocking Life. Topics include personal style, careers, marriage and parenthood – all the things you might expect from a memoir but with two very different views given.

The Art of Being a Woman is probably not for everyone – an interest in fashion helps – although I’d argue that most women are interested in other women, after all, who do we learn from in matters of both life and fashion? However, not only is it an interesting look at two powerful women’s lives it’s also a very beautifully produced book with pictures of Audrey Volk and Schiaparelli and her designs adorning the ends of chapters. Smart and stylish; I like it. 

Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.

1 thought on “The Art of Being a Woman – Patricia Volk

  1. How sad that many women still believe there is only a way to be a woman. I love fashion and make up and I do agree that a good image is beneficial in nowadays’ society, but still… I don’t dress like I came out of Vogue and it’s OK. I would like to think every other woman thinks the same, but I’m afraid they don’t. And more importantly, they don’t see the pressure their daughters – as in the book – get from that image. Long live imperfections!


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