From the Birth of Nail Polish to Manicures Today

joan-crawford-chained-nails[Joan Crawford, wearing a moon manicure, starred opposite Clark Gable in the 1932 film Chained.]Centuries ago, elaborate nails denoted wealth or status, but today, manicures are surprisingly affordable and nail art has become the ultimate act of self-expression. Here, we take a trip down memory lane.

Manicures are a beauty staple for celebrities and everyday women alike these days, but their emergence actually dates back thousands of years. Nail polish, aka enamel, lacquer or varnish, has been around in one form or another for more than 3,000 years. During the Ming dynasty in China, nail polish was made from a mixture of beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes and gum arabic, and royals preferred metallic shades like gold and silver. Extremely long fingernails, which were often protected with decorative nail guards, signaled that you were also extremely wealthy because, after all, you couldn’t possibly have nails that long if you were working in the fields. Egyptians in the upper classes used henna to paint their nails.

Fast forward to 1922: Tourists who visited Atlantic City, New Jersey, couldn’t miss the billboard for Cutex nail and cuticle treatments that dominated one corner of the boardwalk. Early pioneers in nail care Cutex and Glazo offered a rose shade of lacquer in 1924. Then in 1932, Revlon introduced its long-lasting nail enamel in delicate pinks and lush red shades to a mass market.

When Hollywood came calling, nails took center stage. In 1934, Joan Crawford starred opposite Clark Gable in Chained sporting a red moon manicure. After that, it was just a hop, skip and jump to the nail art that Cardi B sported in an ad for Pepsi at the Super Bowl earlier this year. Cardi B’s longtime nail artist Jenny Bui suggested three colors to match the Pepsi can and affixed 25 to 45 Swarovski crystals on each nail. In her piece for The Guardian, Sarah Hampson called nail art the “new unapologetic emblem of femininity.” We think Cardi and her blinged-out nails would agree.

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The ubiquitous manicure is the subject of a book by Suzanne E. Shapiro: Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure (Prestel USA, 2014). The fashion historian takes readers on a journey that starts in antiquity and continues today. Shapiro calls great nails the easiest way to appropriate celebrity style, and she’s right: They’re a “fix without the perils of plastic surgery and flair without the permanence of a tattoo,” she says. Therein lies their appeal.

the-women-movie-nails[In the 1939 film The Women, Rosalind Russell’s character, Sylvia, had her nails painted Jungle Red, a shade that became a symbol of female strength.]1930s to 1940s

There’s an old adage about beauty being recession- proof. The idea, of course, is that during hard times, small luxuries like manicures are more affordable than other indulgences, and that was certainly true during The Great Depression. “Nail polish was a cheap pick-me-up during the 1930s,” says Shapiro. “It was an easy way for a woman to feel as if she was retaining her femininity, especially since she had to cut back on fashion and other nonessential items.”

Shapiro also notes that by 1931, 85 percent of American college women wore nail polish. “That’s a huge adoption rate for something that was a new beauty category,” she says, “but maybe not surprising since they were a younger demographic and more likely to take on this risqué look, which had that aspect of Hollywood glamour.”

In the 1930s, a shade called Wicked White was all the rage, coating the “nerviest nails in the summer of 1939,” according to Shapiro’s research. George Cukor also directed a film called The Women in 1939 about a group of wealthy wives who meet and gossip at Sydney’s Beauty Salon on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where a fictional shade of nail color called Jungle Red becomes what Shapiro calls a “battle cry of female strength.”

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Shapiro’s research also reveals that a number of today’s most popular trends actually got their start decades ago. Take monogrammed nails, for example—currently a nail art mainstay everywhere from hipster salon WAH Nails in London to fashion week in New York. Shapiro actually found a feature in Life dating back to 1938 that mentions the “initial craze,” proving the point that everything old is new again.

1950s to 1960s

By the 1950s, having a manicure was less of a radical gesture than it had been. In fact, it was pretty standard across the board, a symbol of the flawless beauty women were seeing in ad campaigns for everything from cigarettes to automobiles with push-button driving, and “red nails were the consistent glamorous ideal,” Shapiro says.

One of the most brilliant marketing campaigns of the 1950s had to be for Revlon’s Fire and Ice, a shade of red that was pretty ordinary, though what is fascinating is how Revlon found an extraordinary way to spin it so that Fire and Ice became a buzz-worthy topic long before we’d ever heard of Instagram. Famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon shot the campaign, which posed questions like “Have you ever danced with your shoes off?” and “Do you sometimes feel that other women resent you?” to determine if you were a Fire and Ice woman. Says Shapiro, “Basically, Revlon challenged women to ask themselves if they were exciting enough to wear that shade.”

By the 1960s those deep red shades had become passé, with nudes, pastels and tawny colors offering a fresher look for a new generation. It was also in the 1960s that the unveiling of seasonal shades became important, a trend that continues to this day. Other shades making waves in the ’60s were PVC White and Chrome from Mary Quant, which Shapiro says “went with the pared-down mod designs of the day.”

florence-griffith-joyner-nails[Florence Griffith Joyner shows off her Olympic medals—and her nails—in 1989]1970s to 1980s

The 1970s arrived as the first throwback era. “The manicure had been around for a while by then, and retro styles were self-consciously evoked,” says Shapiro, who cites the nostalgic appeal of films like Cabaret (1972) and The Great Gatsby (1974), which helped influence fashion and cosmetics in the 1970s. “Red lips and nails came back,” says Shapiro, who notes that even Mary Quant “deepened her color palette and revived vintage styles like the moon manicure and green-lacquered nails.”

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Celebrities were also exerting greater influence than ever before, with Lou Reed and Freddy Mercury wearing pitch-black nail polish on stage and Dolly Parton sporting extra-long nails. It was during this time that Jeff Pink, the founder of Orly, had an idea for a new kind of manicure that featured an opaque white tip and a translucent pink nail plate to give the illusion of perfect nails. When he showed the look at the Paris fashion shows in 1978, the look became known as the French manicure. The rest, as they say, is history.

The era is also significant because it saw the birth of professional nail products. In 1979, practicing dentist and chemist Stuart Nordstrom created a material in his garage that could be used to sculpt nails and started a company called Creative Nail Design (we know it as CND today). In 1981, Essie Weingarten left a career in the fashion industry behind to introduce an eponymous line of nail polish. That same year George Schaeffer got out of the dental supply business (he owned a small company in Los Angeles called Odontorium Products Inc.) to use the same technology—and the same acronym, OPI—to create an acrylic system he originally sold door-to-door. After that, it was only a matter of time before the word “manicurist” began to be replaced by the term “nail technician,” since working with these new acrylic systems required a lot more training and product knowledge than applying a coat of polish.

The emergence of nail art in the 1980s was fueled, in part, by hip- hop artists like Salt-N-Pepa, who flaunted nail extensions airbrushed to perfection. By the end of the decade, Florence Griffith Joyner was sporting speed and eye-catching nails painted red, white and blue at the 1988 Summer Olympics. “It was one of the first examples of long urban nails going mainstream,” says Shapiro, “and people in both sports and fashion took notice.”

cnd-runway-nails[Nails by CND for The Blonds fall/winter 2015 runway show.]1990s to Present

As with any trend, nails went from one extreme to the other in the early 1990s when short, tidy nails once again became the trend. Bold shades become en vogue for short natural nails, and in 1994, Chanel brought reddish-black Vamp mainstream. It wasn’t long before companies like CND, OPI and Essie, among others, launched their own versions of the shade.

One year later, a little company called Hard Candy introduced a shade of baby blue polish called Sky. When cofounder Dineh Mohajer wore the color on the Late Show with David Letterman, the brand exploded, and opaque candy-colored pastel shades—a different kind of bold— became the new Vamp.

In 1996, CND cofounder Jan Arnold placed a call to emerging designer Cynthia Rowley to see if she’d like a team of nail artists to come to fashion week in New York to do the nails for her spring/summer show. Rowley’s initial response was, “Why?” After Arnold explained that nails are a way to tell your story, Rowley agreed. Arnold’s next call was to Oscar de la Renta, and once he was on board, CND was off to the races. Now, after nearly 300 runway shows featuring custom-designed CND nails, it’s fair to say that Arnold literally paved the way for mainstream acceptance of nail art into fashion.

In the past two decades, the manicure has been reinvented, thanks to innovations like CND’s groundbreaking Shellac gel polish, which brought clients back to the salon and boosted profits, and most recently, the modern rendition of dip nails. So where are we now? Instagram has made stars out of nail artists like Miss Pop, Julie Kandalec, Chelsea King and Britney Tokyo. Meanwhile, TNT has renewed its hit scripted show “Claws,” which follows five nail techs who struggle to make ends meet while managing personal lives awash in drama, all, of course, while wearing designer duds and the most blinged-out nails you’ve ever seen on television. And when it comes to personal expression, today’s women assert their individuality through manicures that reflect their varied tastes and lifestyles. Whether short or long, nude or neon, monochromatic or meticulously hand-painted, an anything-goes attitude toward nails has prevailed. Says Shapiro, It’s the accessories and details that carry individualized flair for people today.”

–by Marianne Dougherty


This story first appeared in the May issue of Nailpro magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

[Images: Courtesy of Suzanne Shapiro; Instagram; Getty Images]

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