Bag For Life


Elegance, loyalty, inspiration. Novelist Erin Kelly sees more in her mother’s make-up bag than a No7 palette


My mother has had the same makeup bag since I was born, a cloth pouch with a groovy turquoise and lime green floral pattern on it, a fantastic 70s print that’s been in and out of fashion at least three times.


Some of my earliest memories of my mother are wrapped up in that bag. I remember watching her twirl on thick mascara at her mirror in our old house. I thought then, as now, that I wanted to be her when I grew up, although I was pretty sure that when my time came to apply mascara, I would be able to do it with my mouth closed.


My first experiments with cosmetics came that way too, sneaking into her top drawer when she was busy downstairs and really going for it. It was, of course, disastrous. We don’t look remotely alike. She’s got brown eyes and tans, whilst I’m pale with blue eyes. Trowelling on her tawny colours, I turned my rosy little face the colour of Hampton Court. Mum was far too kind to say anything.


She’s got her look sorted, my mum. Blonde backcombed hair, loads of dark eye makeup, sheer base – think Dusty Springfield without the pearlised lipstick. Mum’s forty-year unswerving brand loyalty to No7 cosmetics is a marketing manager’s dream. If she ever lost her makeup bag  – which she won’t, she’s far too sensible for that – I could go into Boots now and recreate it for her as easily as I could shop for myself. Her palette remains the same (she had her colours done in the 80s) but the products have got more sophisticated and she always looks current, never dated. She doesn’t do ruts. In her fifties, she took herself off to do a degree at Cambridge University. She got a first-class Masters.


If my mum’s makeup bag is a metaphor for her own life, what does mine say about me? Well, I inherited a lot of good things from her – the attitude, for example, that makeup is a fun but small part of a big life – but care for my possessions wasn’t one of them.  I must have had two dozen bags over the years, all of them tatty magazine or gift-set freebies. What happened to them? I don’t bloody know. They’re in the same black hole as all the odd socks and coffee shop loyalty cards. The current one is too small, filthy with spilt powder and I can never find the lip balm. Apart from my trusted and beloved Mac Face and Body Foundation, I never buy the same product twice, instead preferring to ‘experiment’ (ie waste money on special-offer crap). The parallels between our two mothering styles are unavoidable. Mum had three kids in as many years and brought us up with what now seems to be to be remarkable patience, resourcefulness and creativity. When I was little I only ever heard her swear once and even then she managed to convince me that it was just a different way of pronouncing ‘sheet’. By contrast, whilst my daughters laugh a lot and get enough cuddles, they have very unstructured mealtimes, are often parked in front of the telly while I hit a deadline and one of my eldest’s first words was ‘bollocks.’


Whenever I go and stay with my mum, I inevitably forget some beauty essential and end up rifling through her top drawer for a spare hair elastic or moisturiser. That lime-and-turquoise pouch is always there. Other things come and go: our family has been reshaped by divorce and remarriage, house moves, babies and bereavements. But this make up bag and its contents are consistent, reliable, inspiring, like my mother herself.


My daughters are five and one, and fascinated with my cosmetics. The desk in my study doubles up as a dressing table, and they sit at my feet while I write, while I put on my mascara with my mouth wide open. (Let us strike from the record the time the big one filled in an entire Peppa Pig colouring book with my brand new Chantecaille lipstick.) At the moment, their interest is entirely innocent: they don’t differentiate between the damage limitation of concealer and a box of glittery face paints. But they are like sponges, taking everything in.


I wonder if, in years to come, my girls will stumble across something – a tube of mascara in a drawer, the scent of pressed powder – that will make them think of me and my makeup bag. I wonder if they will remember me with anything like the love and gratitude I feel for my own mother. I hope so very much that they do.



Erin Kelly’s new novel, The Ties That Bind, is available now to pre-order.

All her previous novels are bloody brilliant, too.



Photo credit: tiffany terry / Flickr


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  • Sarah Rose Kettley

    I feel exactly the same way about my mums make up bag too!

  • sugarplumfairy

    What a beautiful, evocative piece.

  • Linda.Belinda

    I always remember how well curated and simple was my mom’s make up on the bathroom shelf. It was fun but simple.

  • Bee

    What a beautiful piece

  • betsymartian

    I actually got a bit of a nostalgic kick last weekend when my mum and I were both visiting my sister and I saw mum’s toiletries in the bathroom – mostly clinique, as it always was. This piece is perfectly timed to resonate with that, for me. 🙂

  • Katey gtl

    Loved this, thank you. My mother’s makeup bag was sacred and magical thing to me when I was a child.

  • Sam W

    This is so lovely. My mum is also a loyal No 7 fan. She’s got some stuff in there from 3 packaging styles ago. Should really get her to chuck some of that…

  • Beklet

    My mum was a Lancôme devotee. I still remember that before any family wedding, she would visit the counter for a make over to make sure she wore the fashionable colours. Looking dated was my mum’s biggest fear. Her make up bag was a deep red that looked like an oversized padded shell. She rarely wore make up, but when did she mastered it.

  • alex monteny


  • Sue

    Beautiful, loved this x

  • Cjramona

    Love this. When my Mum died, it was so important to me that she was made up and her nails were painted!

  • Viki Wilson

    I loved this article, much like your books 🙂

  • Sherry Trifle

    Guerlain les meteorites reminds me of my mum

  • Jessica Twentyman

    Lovely stuff, Erin. More of this, please! xx

  • Rooty Tooty


  • Jenna

    This is such a lovely piece, I really enjoyed it.
    My mum never wore makeup, she was a massive hippie, but she has always had the same jewellery box, and even now, in my 30’s I feel a special awe when I am allowed to open it up and rummage through the beautiful vintage pieces her grandmother wore (and I am slowly inheriting). It’s been one of the only things she has kept with her through her life. It’s very reassuring.

  • Laurin Galdis Taylor

    Thank you Erin, I really enjoyed reading this piece.

  • Nic

    What a wonderful and poignant piece. I take great pleasure in the pleasure both my mother and my six year old daughter take in make up and beauty. It’s literally part of my make-up.

  • Bekahbea

    A beautiful piece. Thank you.

  • linda depina

    Great story. Why oh why can we not edit our cosmetics like generations past? I’ll tell you, because we are bombarded with options, marketing and a fast paced lifestyle . We are never satisfied and always hungry for more more more . Linda

  • Dolly Daydreem


  • Badgirl

    This is so lovely, a really moving piece! You and your Mum sound amazing and I think your daughters are lucky girls xx

  • yomrwhite-bitch

    My mother, matriarch of an extensive nuclear family, had always too little time, and money, for actually purchasing anything much, except basics. However, a teacher of hers back in uni nicknamed her ‘Goya’, as she was seemingly fucking awesome at putting a ‘face’ on. Anyway. Her makeup stuff has always been random mixes of old and drug-store, all with the fingers of four curious daughters of different ages sprawling all over. There is an amazingly huge eye palette with around 50 colours that I’m sure was actually a trial board thingie- I recently had to prise that out of her hands and into the bin- it felt amazing. I’ve been trying to pamper her now, together with my sisters. I pass on loads of products (mostly freebies) that don’t suit my colouring – she has a gorgeous deep tawny color ALWAYS, even in winter.
    She is I think now enjoying these kinds of things, although never forgets to chastise me for ‘wasting my money’- we were always brought up in the belief that beauty, pop culture, even sports, were banal, almost ‘sinful’, you know, experiences that would not contribute towards making us intelligent, spiritual, valuable members of society. or something. i didn’t like that feeling.
    I did her face for my sister’s wedding- she allowed me to, and it was fun.
    I love my mom.

  • Kristen

    Lovely passage. I wish I could join others in saying that the article evokes fond sentiments of my mother for me. Mine is quite vain and to this day. She never has come even close to sharing her coveted cosmetic bag with me, despite that I’m her only child and she spends a small fortune on cosmetics and beauty. All she ever shares with me are free samples from department store cosmetics counters. Maybe that’s the real reason why my self image as a woman has never evolved to be all that feminine and I have never had a substantive romantic life. Ho hum…guess I’ll have to live vicariously through reading good novels like The Poison Tree.

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