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'Shocked': Patricia Volk's Memoir About Beauty And Its Beholders

Patricia Volk is an essayist, novelist and memoirist. She recounts her experiences growing up in a restaurant-owning family in New York City, in her memoir <em>Stuffed</em>.
Random House
Patricia Volk is an essayist, novelist and memoirist. She recounts her experiences growing up in a restaurant-owning family in New York City, in her memoir Stuffed.

Patricia Volk's mother was beautiful in a way that stopped people on the street. Strangers compared her to Lana Turner and Grace Kelly. She was stylish and vain: Her beauty and its preservation mattered to her. "She had an icy blond beauty, an imperious kind of beauty," Volk tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

It was the kind of beauty that Volk knew from an early age she would never match, but that didn't stop her mother from hoping. When Volk would arrive home from a party, the first question her mother would ask her was whether Volk had been the prettiest girl there. Volk's typical response was no doubt not the one her mother wanted.

"I would just kind of shrug," Volk says. "Most of the time I said, 'No, Mom, I wasn't. Bobbie Finkelstein was there and she's much prettier than I am.' ... I hated the question. ... I hated it. I was like, you know, she didn't ask me if I had a good time. She didn't ask me if a boy asked me to dance. It was as if the only thing that was important was that I was the prettiest girl there. I didn't care about that."

And yet Volk didn't necessarily aspire to her mother's idea of beauty because while she recognized its power, she also recognized its limitations.

"It was a curse," she says, "because beauty is evanescent, and I knew my mother would get old. I had a grandmother who was considered so beautiful that she once received a letter [addressed as], 'Postman, postman, do your duty, deliver this letter to the Princeton beauty,' and it got to her door. But she was a grandmother by the time I knew her, and she was no longer beautiful and that was going to happen to my mother. I knew early on that I wanted to be responsible for what made my life good. I didn't want it to be something god-given or something that could be taken away from me by time."

Volk found an another way to think about fashion and beauty when she discovered the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli's memoir, Shocking Life, on her mother's bookshelf. Her surrealist-influenced fashion and her personality — not her face — got Schiaparelli attention. The title of Volk's new memoir, Shocked, echoes that of Schiaparelli's autobiography, and the book contrasts what Volk learned from her mother's conventional sense of beauty and being a woman with Schiaparelli's.

"Schiaparelli," says Volk, "gave me an alternative way to be."

Interview Highlights

On her mother's makeup regimen

"She had an elaborate maquillage and when I was a little girl I loved watching her put on her makeup. I loved it and it also disturbed me because it masked her face. By the time she was finished with all these layers of paint, she had actually put a mask of her face on top of her face. She would put on so much Max Factor pancake makeup — which she sometimes called her 'base' — that really her face was all even like the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. It was just this flat plane and then she'd sculpt cheekbones in with what she called 'rouge' — I guess they now call it 'blush' — and then she'd put eyes back on with blue eye shadow and mascara, and the whole thing took a long time and she always wore this green velvet robe that I loved and her vanity was entirely made of mirror. Even the wastebasket that came with it was made of mirror and the stool that she sat on."

On her own sense of style and fashion

"I don't really wear 'Notice Me' clothes, but I do dress in a way that is something that pleases me. I don't know how other people react to it. I went through a vintage period that my mother was horrified by. She thought I was going to get bedbugs and lice and things, but I loved those old drippy clothes. And I think I still do. I dress a little bit like a female Oscar Wilde. I just love those high collars and those lavish ties at the neck. ... I do like surrealism in my clothes. For instance, I make my buttons out of the kind of faux sushi you see in the windows of Japanese take-out places. Sometimes I use dice. I like to amuse myself with my clothes and I don't really care if anybody else likes them. I made myself a pair of earrings out of typewriter keys. That's one of my favorite things. I love getting dressed and I just do it for myself."

How Elsa Schiaparelli changed women's underwear

"Women's underwear before World War II was kind of elaborate. It was usually made of silk and it had pleats and it had to be ironed. This was in France. There was no such thing as 'drip dry' and when the war started, most of the men went to the front and the women had to take jobs. There was gas rationing and so everybody had bicycles and you had to be licensed to ride a bike in Paris, and in one year bike licenses tripled; it went up to 11 million. The way women dressed with these long skirts and this very elaborate underwear didn't lend itself to riding a bike so Schiap changed panties completely. First of all, there was famine, so she got rid of the buttons and put elastic in the waist so that as you were losing weight, your panties would stay on. Then, she made them out of drip-dry material, so you didn't need a maid to iron them ... and she added a double-slung crotch and suddenly women could ride their bikes with a lot more freedom."

On the face-lift her mother had in her 40s

"When beauty is the coin of your realm you do what you need to do to keep looking good. ... I think she was initially pleased. She didn't look like my mother to me anymore. She looked to me like a police sketch of my mother. To see my mother's face — the face I loved — I would look in old photo albums. The face-lift got a little bit botched. A nerve was severed. The doctor was supposed to operate on her at 8:30 in the morning and it kept getting delayed and delayed and delayed, and they didn't take her down until 6 o'clock in the evening and he severed the nerve that raised the left side of her mouth. ... But my mother was such an expert at masking it that I didn't know until 40 years later that that had happened. I don't think that my father knew either, but when she got very, very sick and she really had no energy left, I saw the droop and she told me what had happened."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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