In strange, scary and uncertain times, we often reassess priorities and take time to adjust our perspectives. As the COVID-19 crisis spreads across the country, many of us are following official advice and steering clear of our parents and relatives who may be elderly, unwell or otherwise vulnerable in an effort to protect them against transmission of the virus. Whether you fall into that group or are fortunate enough to have healthy parents, this Mother's Day more than any other we're taking the opportunity to tell our mums just how much they mean to us.
When you're an adult, because you don't need them in the same way you did as a child, it's sometimes easy to forget to appreciate the maternal figure in your life – be that your biological or adoptive mother, your godmother or someone else entirely. The wonderful Instagram account @mothersbefore reminds us that our mums were – and still are – very much their own people before having us. They went travelling, hit dance floors and hosted surprise birthday parties for their friends; they did everything we now do and, just because they had children, does not mean they don't still have a full, well rounded, thrilling life of their own.
Refinery29 staff dove deep into our family photo albums to see what our mums looked like when they were younger, and got lost in looks from the '70s, '80s and '90s which have inevitably come back around as revived trends. Think velvet padded headbands, cropped cardigans and pearl accessories; hiking boots, Levi's denim and Breton tops. If you think your own wardrobe is the crème de la crème of contemporary style, don't flatter yourself – your mama got there first. Ahead, we recreated the looks our mums donned back in the day and as it turns out, we should all be begging them for hand-me-downs. Here's hoping your mum kept that collectable tee going for £100 on Depop, hey?
Sadhbh O'Sullivan, health & living writer & her mum Orla O’Sullivan
"This photo was taken in the drawing room of the family home in Dublin. It’s Christmas 1989 and they were holding their annual Christmas party. I had no real interest in fashion when I was younger. Also the late '80s/early '90s were not strong fashion-wise; I recall lots of ill-advised boiler suits. I used to borrow my mother’s clothes for special occasions in my 20s. She had a much more interesting wardrobe, with vintage pieces from the '40s and '50s. I was wearing a 1950s Chinese silk emerald green dress with boned bodice and jacket the night I met my husband.
Generally, I don't think pieces I wore then have come back into fashion – and that’s a good thing! Though the midi skirt is having a resurgence. Also the padded Alice band I’m wearing in the picture (a version of which I wore on my wedding day) is right on trend. The most treasured fashion item from my youth is a 1950s cream silk cocktail dress with appliqué sequins. It was my mother's. Yes, I still have it. I think Sadhbh is fashion-forward. I love her look, the mixing of pieces and that she dresses for herself and no one else. She looks fab! Her wedding day photos were just great.
"I love my mum's look – she looks very regal and glamorous in a way I don’t think I could pull off. Our style isn't very similar – from what she tells me it was a lot of long brown skirts and itchy fabrics. I am increasingly inclined towards well-made staples over trend-based dressing though, which I think is very her. Would I wear this look IRL? Honestly I didn’t think so at first – I felt like I was in costume as a teacher in a secondary school play – but after a while I grew to really like it. Particularly enjoyed the cardigan as a top."
Anna Jay, art director & her mum Helen Jay
"I have very little recollection of this photo, but I guess I was 19 years old (in 1972). Perhaps one evening in a rural location, Lincolnshire? I was with my boyfriend, Michael, who I went on to marry when I was just 23. We got divorced, I moved to London and at 31 I met Anna's dad, another Michael, a 46-year old bachelor, eventually moving to Cornwall where we had Anna and her brother Charlie.
My style was young, casual, not very fashion-conscious – I never had or spent much money on fashion. I was brought up in the rurality of Hampshire – there weren’t many clothes shops locally. As a child, I only had hand-me-downs as I had an older sister, nothing new. Are the pieces I wore then back in style? Bell bottom jeans and long pointed collars? I’ve no idea!
My most treasured pieces from my youth are my long leather boots from Eliot’s of Farnham. I had skinny, stick-like legs and no boots suited or fitted me really! So my mum promised me, when I was 15, we would go to nearby Farnham, home of super-duper expensive and exclusive boot-makers at the time. I positioned the boots at the end of my bed that night, to see them first thing in the morning – I was so proud, I felt like royalty! I still do this when I’ve bought something new.
Anna’s style is very casual but cleverly stylish and simple. It surprises me sometimes, knowing her nature of work, how jeans and trainers are the mode of dress. How times have changed in offices over the last 50 years, since I started work back in the early '70s. But my overall impression is that of individuality – quite a chilled statement style of dress, and she’s definitely not sucked in or affected by consumerism, bearing in mind the high exposure to fashion in her everyday working life. Actually, quite the opposite – I could describe it as a minimalist approach to self-styling, little makeup, no jewellery. Simple and naturally beautiful!"
"I love this photo! It’s so interesting to see photos of my mum when she was younger, because I’ve not really seen many before she met my dad (other than from childhood). This dress is beautiful, I wish she’d kept it. It’s really hard to say whether our style is similar, as I don’t think either of us has one specific look, though the principles she describes of dressing quite simply do apply. I’d rather buy less and make it last, something that was enforced rather than favoured at her age, without fast fashion and next-day shopping. I would wear this look today; I love the dress and in monochrome I find it much more wearable. I’d probably pair it with a white tee rather than the voluminous shirt, which I would wear separately with jeans. I really loved this exercise in looking at old photos of Mum through the lens of style, I think it’s something that we might dig deeper into next time we are together."
Poppy Thorpe, photo & design intern & her mum Caroline Thorpe
"This is me trying to venture out with a young baby in tow. We went on a hike somewhere near Le Barrage de Bimont, Aix-en-Provence. I would have slung on my favourite striped top, comfy jeans and comfy boots – I'm not sure where the headscarf came in, probably because my hair was too short to tie back. We took our faithful baguette, camembert and little green bottle of beer and set off behind Sally, Jean Phillipe and little Clare.
Try as I did as a young mum to ‘make an effort’ with my image, I quite simply lost the will. I always wished I had a 'style'. But being the youngest mum in the expat posse (24), I felt I had to look the part. Now, when I look back, I had a style but just no confidence. When you lose all body confidence overnight, I lost sight of me. I remember trying to dress like other mums but soon realised that wasn’t me.
I remember having a chat with a good friend, Adele (who had no children, the best figure and always looked neat! Clue being the no children bit!!). I told her I was fed up with always feeling scruffy. So the decision was made I would have three categories: casual – bumming around at home look, being super mum; casual smart – for those mummy lunches and coffee and catch-up chats in Aix. Mingling with and standing right out of the groups of petite chic French ladies who would look you up and down and wonder why you had tits like Madonna’s (little did they know they were breast shells filled with cold swishing milk!); and smart... Didn’t actually get that far, with little money and nowhere to go, I soon scrapped that category. In fact I soon scrapped the whole idea and went back to being me: stripy tops and jeans.
Fashion has definitely gone around in a loop but always with a little twist of a difference. Lucy (my youngest daughter) often looks at old pictures and says 'Wow, I love your outfit...why didn’t you keep your clothes?' But in those days we would wear them to death then throw them away or turn them into cloths to polish the school shoes!
There has always been a special place in my heart (and wardrobe) for various stripy items. When carrying my third child I decided a little Petit Bateau dress was a must. I would definitely carry that off with my little bump. Sadly from the front I looked like a contour map where the stripes stretched over my bumps and from the side you couldn’t tell if I was walking forwards or backwards, as the bump of my bum was a mirror image of my tum! I didn’t take that further! Poppy is stylish. Simple but smart. She dresses similar to my memories of my mum’s fashion in the '70s and my ‘party’ dresses from age 8! Long flowing frocks but always black."
"I love my mum's look in that photograph – it’s very now, which just shows how things come back in fashion. I have those exact jeans and also love good worn-in Doc Martens or boots. My mum would also wear something like this now and I like that her style hasn’t changed that much. I think our styles are similar in the sense that we both like to be comfortable – that comes above everything else for me. Sometimes I wish I were more glamorous and feminine but then I know I wouldn’t feel like myself in those clothes. I also don’t like to wear tight-fitting clothes – I don’t like the idea of dressing revealingly or traditionally sexy. I think loose-fitting clothes and masculine shapes can be very cool and sexy in a more interesting way. I would wear something very similar but a lot less colourful. Absolutely no stripes, I find it hard to wear patterns and colours unless they are quite tonal. I also would lose the headband – uncomfortable and too girly for me."
Habiba Katsha, editorial intern & her mum Jose Kalanda
"This picture was taken on my 40th birthday outside Homebase. I was having a party at my house and decided to go there to buy myself a new plant as a birthday gift to myself, as I love plants. During my 20 and 30s I used to dress very chic and smart and I was always wearing high heels. I came from an upper-middle class family and as I was the first daughter, my parents wanted me to dress smart. I wore a mixture of traditional Congolese pieces with Western clothes. I loved colours and would always dress up for different occasions such as parties and conferences. When I became a mother in my late 20s, my style didn’t change that much as my husband wanted me to continue dressing chic and wearing dresses.
I can see that the pieces I wore back in the day are coming back into fashion, especially '80s colours, mini skirts and dad trainers, too. Cane rows are coming back into fashion too. My most treasured fashion item was a green mini skirt I used to wear during my teens, but I don't have it anymore. I gave it away to my cousin. I think the fashion in 2020 is a bit risque but I like that a lot of the styles that I wore when I was younger are coming back."
"I think the look is very cool and definitely represents who she is. It’s simple but very chic and can be worn in so many different ways – she loves clothes like that. I love the colour too; as we’re Congolese we’re known for wearing bright colours a lot. My mum was in her 40s here so I’ll have to find out whether our style is the same in the future! I most definitely would wear this look today. Slip dresses are so in right now and are perfect for the summer."
Jess Commons, lifestyle director & her mum Brenda Commons
"This was at my cousin Robin’s wedding to Rachel. It was at Christchurch Priory in Dorset just after Christmas, maybe even Boxing Day. I’d bought the coat for that – it was by Windsmoor and I kept it for years and years. It sealed the conviction in me that spending money on a good classic item that would last through changes in fashion is worthwhile.
Granny’s coat was also an extravagance, which she bought with the money she got when the government redeemed her set of war bonds. (When people lent money to the government to finance WW2 – this was the start of the National Savings Scheme.) She bought the hat to match. She kept the coat right up until her last move, when we donated it to the Syrian refugees appeal, which Jess also gave me a lot of coats for.
I was still at uni here – probably my final year so 1976, as I must have been thinking about clothes that would be suitable for work. At that time I would otherwise be wearing long skirts, my Laura Ashley pinafore or black loons with a button-up smock that I made out of upholstery fabric I’d dyed. I guess pieces I wore back in the day like Mary Quant came back into fashion. My most treasured fashion items are probably the blue Laura Ashley pinafore that I liked to wear with a white shirt which had long sleeves gathered at the cuff and shoulders, and a piece of thin black velvet ribbon round under the collar tied in a bow at the front, a bit like a cowboy bootlace tie. Or sometimes as a choker.
I also loved my faux fur coat, which was given to me by a very classy older lady friend of Granny’s who took her under her wing when she was young. I suppose they represent my break away from my slightly strict, conventional upbringing. (And the coat was the reason for Granny buying me the Windsmoor!) When I started work I wore skirt suits with broad shoulders – power dressing I guess! The equivalent today are trouser suits I suppose. With regard to Jess's clothes, I have always been amazed at how elegantly she puts clothes together. I’m glad that she feels she has the freedom to wear what she wants rather than be constrained by fashion. And I’ve given up trying to buy her clothes as I can’t guess what she would like!"
"I love my mum's look! I think she looks very cool indeed with that chic coat. Our style is totally different – this was in the '70s and she loved a prairie dress, long skirts and long hair. She also made a lot of her own clothes which are really incredible. She’d get patterns and sew them on her sewing machine. I only wear black: cropped trousers, polo necks, Scandi vibes. I also couldn’t sew a dress if my life depended on it. She did buy me a sewing machine once for a birthday but I believe it’s currently being used by her as hers broke. Would I wear this look today? I want to immediately say no because it’s not black, but looking at it, I’m kind of obsessed? Perhaps next winter I’ll splash out on a camel coat – who knows, anything could happen!"