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As Mother’s Day approaches, journalist Alice Hart-Davis reflects on what she learned about beauty from her mum – and the wisdom she’s passing on to her own daughters
ack when I was still a beauty novice, there was a year when I was stuck on what to buy my mum for her birthday. ‘Get her some perfume,’ said a colleague, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. But it didn’t seem like that to me – when my mum wasn’t at her desk doing paperwork, she was outside seeing to the sheep, cats or chickens, or mending fences, on her farm. In other words, she didn’t have much need for perfume.
But my colleague persisted: ‘What’s her favourite fragrance?’ That I did know – it was a fancy designer brand, much joked about in the family for being the costliest in the world, and therefore something to be worn one drop at a time. I knew she hadn’t had any for a while, because whenever I went home I’d always settle down at her dressing table (on the pretext of using her hairdryer, but really so I could have a nose at her moisturiser and make-up, and try her latest lipstick – yes, even at the age of 22), and there was a conspicuous absence of scent.
Suddenly, perfume seemed a great idea, and after a trawl of London’s fanciest fragrance halls, I found a small bottle of her signature scent for less than £50. Mum was thrilled, and when she dabbed it on and leaned forward to kiss me thank you, a wave of memory washed over me.
My first ‘beauty memory’ of my mum was of her drifting into my bedroom in a cloud of perfume
Smelling that intense burst of jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang and tuberose took me back to my childhood bedroom, snuggled under a heap of blankets with my mother kissing me goodnight before going out for the evening. Hair curled, make-up on, she seemed the epitome of glamour – a million miles away from her usual low-key look. And that’s my first ‘beauty memory’ of my mum – the transformation from outdoorsy type to ultra-glamorous woman, drifting into my bedroom in a cloud of perfume. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this was the beginning of my love affair with all things beauty. She showed me that make-up had the power to take someone from one world to another – and that it could be a lot of fun.
I don’t think this memory, and how attached to it I am, is unusual. After all, scientists know that smells are processed by the emotional parts of the brain, and familiar scents can bring back happy memories. Early experiences can really leave an impression.
For me, my mum’s favourite perfume remained unequivocally her scent. It was only when I discovered Chanel No5 that I found my signature fragrance: in the mid-80s, the sharp-edged perfume was perfect with my padded-shoulder power jackets! But while I may not have inherited her perfume, boy, did I take to her make-up – most specifically, her fancy designer foundation. She always applied it with a restrained hand, but I ladled it on, pancake-like, to cover my blotchy, blushing teenage complexion. She never showed me how to use it – nor commented on my ‘liberal’ use of it, bless her – but I still credit her with those initial forays.
Another stalwart on Mum’s dressing table was her blusher (or rouge, as she always called it). She’s been a fan since she was a schoolgirl, when her own mother equipped her with a pot and showed her how to smudge a little on the apples of her cheeks to help brighten her milky-white complexion. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t bear the thought of adding more redness to my blushing face, but now, middle-aged, I’ve come round to Mum’s obsession and have even taken her love affair one step further. I have a range of blushers for different finishes, from summery bronzes to healthy-flush reds, and even a glimmering orangey pink that’s perfect for brightening up a dull winter complexion.
I now also get to pass on my beauty wisdom to my own daughters, Beth, 20, and Molly, 21. And while my mum didn’t give me many specific tips, she did inspire my approach with my girls – to give them the freedom to discover the joy of make-up for themselves. I held back from saying anything until they started to ask questions. And even then, it wasn’t so much a case of me passing on my beauty tips as trying not to overreact to their experiments – particularly when Molly got the make-up bug aged 13! Like her contemporaries, she fell in love with eyeliner, but she also liked to top and tail it with mascara, foundation and lipgloss. My plaintive suggestion that ‘less is more’ fell on deaf ears…
But while I’ve tried to keep the motherly advice to a minimum (they don’t need it and probably wouldn’t thank me for it), I’ve rammed home the message that I value them for who they are, rather than how they look – which is something I learned from my own mother. That, and how transformative beauty products can be. It may just be powder and paint, but it all has great power, particularly when it comes to boosting our self-esteem.
Nowadays, given my job as a beauty journalist and the samples of skincare and make-up that come with it, I actually find myself passing on tips to my mum. Over the years I’ve introduced her to the delights of tinted moisturiser – Clarins HydraQuench is a particular favourite – and skincare serums such as No7 Restore & Renew. She is still delighted and scandalised when I give her a fancy moisturiser to try and, on Googling it, discovers that it costs more than a month’s groceries!
Writing this piece and casting my mind back has also helped me to make one easy decision. I know what I’m getting Mum this Mother’s Day: something that smells fabulous…
Photography Getty Images, Jane Mingay, Nick Holt, Pixeleyes