Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me

Alfred A. Knopf  2013


Patricia Volk’s Shocked does what only the best memoirs do: It prompts us to examine our own lives. In Shocked, Volk, who shared her growing up in a New York Jewish restaurant clan in her previous, highly entertaining, memoir Stuffed, questions what it means to be a woman. She does this not by reflecting much herself, but rather by portraying the two women who served as her role models: Her mother, Audrey Morgen Volk, and iconic fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

While Audrey appears in flesh and blood as an opinionated, resolute, and stunning blonde, Schiap (as she prefers to be called) becomes a character through her autobiography, Shocking Life, which Volk calls the transformative book of her life. At ten, she picked it from her mother’s books. On the cusp of puberty, she was ready to question her mother’s rules, and “Schiap,” gave her “an alternative way to be.” The book’s charm lies in the rules Audrey passes on to her daughter, the kind of wisdom generations of women have traded and tested: “Never let a man see you with cold cream on your face,” or “soap is the enemy.”

Like the narrator, Schiap is told she is no beauty, especially with moles in the constellation of the Big Dipper on her cheek. What does she do? She designs and wears a diamond brooch sporting the Big Dipper. While Audrey showcases impeccable fashion as the hostess of her husband’s restaurant, Schiap shocks party guests by wearing a cellophane dress. Volk concludes that a woman can be admired not only for what she inherits, but for what she creates.

Schiap and Audrey do share a few traits, among them a disdain for Schiap’s rival Chanel, whose wares Volk’s family boycotts during the wartime years because of Chanel’s Nazi sympathies. Audrey wears Schiaparelli’s perfume Shocking, which Volk calls “the smell of [my] youth.” In the end Volk secures a leftover bottle of Shocking from her elderly mother who no longer cares. For her, however, that bottle is priceless: It is a piece of her mother and a piece of Schiap.

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