Beauty racked,nails
Sorry, Cleopatra Didn’t Wear Nail Polish to Feel Powerful

The modern manicure is relatively new, but people have been buffing and coloring their nails for millennia.

Next time you’re absent-mindedly picking your polish colors, selecting the design for your next nail-art masterpiece, or trying to awkwardly read your text messages in the middle of your manicure, remember: You’re in good company. Nails have been a dedicated part of many women’s beauty regimes for a long, long time, and it doesn’t look like that’ll be changing anytime soon.

Various cultures have long used DIY stains, powders, and creams to tint and buff their nails. In fact, there’s evidence that people may have been manicuring their nails for millennia —possibly as far back as 5,000 B.C. But the 20th-century invention of the ultra-flammable compound nitrocellulose — also used in celluloid film — changed the game for nail polish, setting the stage for today’s seemingly endless array of manicure options.

Henna-dyed nails were common in parts of the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, and North Africa.

The exact origins of nail polish are unclear, but we know that people have been coloring their nails for centuries. Gilded nails and henna-tinted fingertips were found on ancient Egyptian mummies, notes Suzanne E. Shapiro, author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure. But the oft-repeated belief that ancient queens like Cleopatra and Nefertiti dyed their nails varying shades of red to signify their power — or that “common” Egyptian women were put to death for daring to wear anything but pastels on their fingertips — are unlikely. “I would have loved to have said something about [the nail preferences of] those two queens [in my book], but I couldn’t find anything to back it up, even talking to Egyptologists at the Met Museum,” Shapiro says via email.

Henna-dyed nails were common in parts of the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, and North Africa, however, and in Chinese and Korean customs, women tinted their nails red with a homemade tonic made from alum and crushed balsam flowers. Crimson nails were also mentioned in a medieval Irish poem, Shapiro discovered.

Noblemen and -women from the Yuan dynasty donned long, ornately decorated claw-like nail guards — worn in pairs of two per hand — to protect the long nails underneath. Both the nails and the elaborate protective guards were a sign of their power and wealth, Shapiro writes — a way to project the fact that they didn’t need to lift a finger when it came to manual labor.

Noblemen and women from the Yuan dynasty donned long, ornately decorated claw-like nail guards to protect the long nails underneath.

For women of the Victorian era, the period’s emphasis on moral purity and virtue translated into clean, simple nails. “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a woman showed a well-mannered sophistication by tending to her soft, natural-looking hands,” writes Shapiro inNails. As Shapiro recounts in her book, an 18th-century English list of qualities denoting perfect female beauty mentioned “a white Hand somewhat long and Plump” and “nails of Mother of Pearl turned Oval-wise.”

Of course, beauty standards change, and during the latter part of the 19th century, women — especially city-dwelling ones — had more resources to devote to hygienic rituals like, well, getting their nails done. Today’s concept of the manicure as a service can be traced back to King Louis Philippe of France, who, Shapiro writes, regularly had his nails tended by a man named Monsieur Sitts.

Manicure parlors first began to pop up in Paris in the 1870s, and though the unfussy buff-and-shine services offered then were far less comprehensive than today’s extravagant nail-salon offerings, the typical parlor scene wasn’t all that different from now: “Women (and some men) reading and awaiting a turn at one of the tables, set with a basin and manicuring tools and treatments,” Shapiro describes via email.

Soon the trend hopped the pond, and in 1878, fledgling entrepreneur Mary E. Cobb opened the first American nail salon on New York City’s West 23rd Street. “Mary Cobb is one of my favorite characters in the history of nail care,” Shapiro enthuses, noting that Cobb was “a fiercely independent … woman who divorced her podiatrist/cosmetic manufacturing husband and started her own salon and product business.” Cobb, who had studied nail care in Paris, reportedly charged $1.25 for a simple manicure (nail polish wasn’t formally around yet). Her business took off, making Cobb a lady-entrepreneur legend. In addition to opening various salon branches, she sold her own line of products, including a concoction called Cosmetic Cherri-Lip “to tint nails, lips, and cheeks with a ‘rosy blush true to nature,’” Shapiro writes. Cobb singlehandedly set the stage for the 1,000-plus nail salons that currently dot New York City (many of which have been found ethically questionable).

The dawn of the 20th century ushered in new opportunities for American women (mainly white ones of a certain class). Unsurprisingly, these women’s beauty regimens expanded to match. In Nails, Shapiro notes that in 1910, suffragists were spotted wearing makeup while marching for the right to vote; they championed “female autonomy and freedom of appearance all at once,” she writes. The budding beauty industry also launched some of the richest self-created female entrepreneurs in the world, including Madame C.J. Walker (the African-American daughter of former slaves), Helena Rubinstein, and Elizabeth Arden (who, as a nail polish-hater, didn’t start her own line of nail enamel until the late 1930s).

With Cutex’s launch of colored nail polish in 1924, women began using nail color as a way to express themselves — though they were first relegated to using pink alone.

During the Roaring Twenties, flappers began gleefully upending typical feminine style conventions. Showing skin, chopping their hair, and drinking and smoking to their heart’s’ content, the It Girls of the 1920s were more self-expressive than ever. And with Cutex’s launch of colored nail polish in 1924, women began using nail color as a way to express themselves, too — though they were first relegated to using pink alone. “It is actually modern car-paint technology that was put to use to create [nail polish colors] in the 20th century,” says Susan Stewart, author of the forthcoming Painted Faces: A Colorful History of Cosmetics. Indeed, nitrocellulose lacquer had more commonly been used as auto paint, and, as Suzanne E. Shapiro writes, some women had tried using the stuff on their nails even before Cutex’s mass-market introduction of rosy nail enamel.

Things got saucier in 1929, when America experienced the dawn of red nail polish — “the big bang of modern manicuring,” as Shapiro puts it. “Women had been experimenting with sheer rose nail color through the ’20s,” she says. “But in the summer of 1929, the fashion press took notice when European socialites began to polish their nails with deep red enamel,” and the color took off, gaining more momentum in the ’30s. After Revlon launched in 1932 with the first long-wear polish in a selection of reds and pinks, women started getting more creative with their manicures; think Joan Crawford’s edgy red half-moon.

“The link between nail fashions and women’s changing values is quite remarkable.”

Ever since those early days, American women’s nails have ridden an ever-shifting carousel of trends. From the emergence of nail art in the disco-loving ’70s to African-American women’s celebration and popularization of acrylics; from Chanel Vamp to decals, rhinestones, tiny scorpions (!), and more, one of the coolest things about the evolution of nail trends is how they’ve naturally aligned with women’s shifting roles in the culture at large. “The link between nail fashions and women’s changing values is quite remarkable,” Shapiro agrees. For example, in the relatively stable 1950s, she says, “perfectly painted red and coral nails were an aspect of the era’s hyperfeminine, almost conformist sense of beauty,” while understated French manicures became a Thing among ’80s career women and, with the advent of hip-hop, “long and elaborate nail fashions allowed [black] women to define style on their own terms.”

And Shapiro is quick to point out that it behooves no one to downplay the significance of these relatively affordable little luxuries. While working on her book, Shapiro says she “found it fascinating to learn how fiercely women have defended their love of nail polish, even in times of war and strife.”

Beauty rituals like manicures are deeply personal and self-governed; they’re tied to our individual histories, roots, and cultures as well as our unique tastes. But nails just might be the one aspect of feminine beauty that most cis white men have little interest or say in. “After learning about so many bold female entrepreneurs in nail care and eminent personalities who just really loved nails,” Shapiro says, “it became even more evident that our affection for manicures is hardly dependent on manipulation from men.”

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