Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Art of Being a Woman by Patricia Volk

The Art of Being a Woman is both a coming-of-age memoir and intimate portrait of a mother-and-daughter relationship. Entering her second decade of life, Patricia Volk was already acutely aware that she would never be able to live up to her mother’s beauty or her exacting standards of womanly refinement. Sadly, Patricia was ungainly and unattractive.

Audrey Volk prided herself on having the best, whether it was the best fur coat or the best dentist. And, she was never short of advice to pass on to her daughters, especially about the two most fundamentals of life: their physical appearance and how to catch and keep a man. When it came to dating advice, Audrey had a long list of non-negotiables – do not talk loud, leave some food on the plate, never call a boy, do not open car doors, and never offer to split the check. If you expect to be treated like a lady, you will be; your feminine charm secures your future place in the world.

When 10 year old Patricia discovered a copy of Schiaparelli’s autobiography on her mother’s bookshelf, she couldn't help but  contrast the two. Elsa Schiaparelli was everything Audrey Volk was not. Audrey was the model of elegance and etiquette, whereas Schiaparelli was scandalous and impulsive. Rejecting the demure life of a typical 1900’s Italian aristocrat, Schiaparelli had carved out a life of creation, innovation, and personal freedom. As part of the surrealist movement, her fashion designs were outlandish in their concept and construction. Eighty years before Lady Gaga, she fashioned a dress out of meat. Years before Alexander McQueen’s spine corset, Schiaparelli had already invented the skeleton dress.

Sneakily reading Schiaparelli’s book opened up a world of possibilities for young Patricia. No longer was she trapped in her mother’s reality of what it meant to be a woman. Volk writes of Audrey’s world view, rendering it rather amusing and quaint, but there is real substance behind the froth when reading between the lines. The Art of Being a Woman manages to be an entertaining reflection on life and its alternative possibilities.

Reviewed by Spot

Catalogue Link:  The Art of Being a Woman

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