The Art of Being a Woman


Witty, wise and utterly delightful, Patricia Volk’s new memoir juxtaposes the lives of two women – the iconoclastic designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the author’s own Hollywood-beautiful New York mother – to tell the story of how a young Patricia learnt, by way of some very contrasting lessons, the art of being a woman.

To celebrate International Women’s Day we want to share this letter with you. Originally printed in proof copies to preface the book, Patricia explains where it all began.

My mother, a.k.a. ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ got the same birthday present every year. In an elaborate ritual, Dad gave her a bottle of Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘Shocking’ perfume. He made the wrapping paper himself, using Scotch tape and as many hundred dollar bills as it took to get the job done.

So Schiap (as she preferred being called) was a most important person Chez Volk. I was ten when I came across her autobiography. It was my transformative book, the one you find (if you’re lucky) at exactly the right time. Suddenly, I had a new way to see my demanding, all-powerful mother. Shocking Life defused her.

I began plotting my own course, comparing my mother to Schiap. One was told she was a great beauty and that, for a woman, beauty was what counted. The other was told she was ugly. One pursued a life of safe domesticity. The other blurred the line between fashion and art. It was life-changing to me that Schiap became successful doing the very things my mother cautioned against (competing with men, taking risks, dreaming big). A woman didn’t have to be beautiful to have a good life.

Not too long ago, when it was clear my mother wasn’t going to live forever, I asked if I could have an old ‘Shocking’ bottle displayed in one of her bathrooms. I unscrewed the top. Inside, like a genie, was the smell of my youth. And I remembered everything.

Patricia Volk

The Art of Being a Woman is published in May by Hutchinson.

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