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Beauty writers have been breathlessly describing the mani since the 1880s, when Parisian parlours began offering the service. But little attention has been paid to the history of polish as a cultural force—until now.
In the new book Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure, Suzanne E. Shapiro, a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, argues that the painted nail isn’t mere frill: it reflects changing ideals of femininity.
Gilded fingertips go way back to ancient Egypt, but manicures didn’t become commercial until a medical pro cured France’s Louis-Philippe I of a pesky hangnail. Suddenly, expert grooming was an important matter of beauty and hygiene, and nail salons began opening in Europe and America. Though most women kept their tips subtly tinted, some early adopters sported diamond piercings and other flashy add-ons.
The 1920s brought the first coloured liquid polishes to the masses, and their popularity took off alongside a rebellious new habit: smoking. “It was an erotic gesture,” says Shapiro, “that showed one’s hands,” which were often painted racy scarlet, the colour du jour. “During the Jazz Age, it was the coolest thing to be a young woman who dressed provocatively, drank with the boys and danced all night. Part of that culture was about defying norms, so it was a good climate for bold nails.”
Although red lacquer ruled for decades, by the ’50s it was no longer “a marker of feminine disobedience,” as Shapiro puts it, but a sign of ladylike perfection—no chips allowed. By the ’60s, women had turned away from their grandma’s polishes, opting for pales, nudes and pop-art brights.
Fashion’s experimental mood in the ’70s marked the resurgence of nail art, embraced by stars like Cher. But it was hip hop’s love of flamboyant extensions in the ’80s and ’90s that turned the niche fad into a full-on phenomenon. Showcasing designer logos and sometimes even actual money (one celebrity manicurist adorned Lil’ Kim’s tips with strips of dollar bills), blinged-out nails signalled urban cred and unlimited cash flow.
Now, thanks to the Internet, nail art has gone viral. “We’re obsessed with details, and we have high-res phones to take photos. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a new style creeps up,” says Shapiro. “There are articles that ask, Is nail art dead? But I don’t expect that to happen.” Neither do we: with the ongoing innovations at our fingertips—including the futuristic, fresh-off-the-3D-printer press-ons now available online—this enduring trend continues to earn our two thumbs up.
Photography by Saty + Pratha
Get to know Rita Remark, Lead Nail Artist for Essie Canada