A Life in Lacquer
Men, too, were expected to keep up with the sterilizing strictures of upper-crust society. No poet — no matter if he had just finished an epic ditty on the sublime nature of the Alps, or of the earthworm—could be caught with a speck of lowly dirt under his fingernails.
What common household item puts ancient Egypt, dynastic China, Victorian England, war–torn Europe, glamorous Hollywood, and the American automotive industry at your fingertips? The answer is at the tip of your fingers.
The history of nail lacquer reveals overarching narratives of social class distinctions in many cultures, though a quick examination shows that the shiny stuff was not always so ubiquitous or mundane. The care and decoration of fingernails began in 3000 BC in Ancient dynastic China, where members of the royal families painted their nails red, black, silver, or even gold in accordance with the colors of the ruling dynasty. In Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra was known for using henna and blood to dye her fingernails. Later a formula composed of egg whites, beeswax, and gum arabic was used to coat the nails of the highest classes. Commoners were only allowed to adorn their nails in pale, muted colors.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s in France, however, that a trade surrounding the maintenance of fingernails arose in the shape of the manicure’s shop. The “manicure” referred to what we today call the technician and not the actual procedure of nail maintenance. High-society Europeans were obsessed with the shape, sheen, cleanliness, and color of fingernails. The manicure was the man who made your hands fit your social rank. Nail grooming indicated the wealth needed to lavish time and resources on dead extremities. Tapered, almond-shaped fingernails on women visually lengthened the fingers of the hand and connoted elegance, refinement, and class. Men, too, were expected to keep up with the sterilizing strictures of upper-crust society. No poet — no matter if he had just finished an epic ditty on the sublime nature of the Alps, or of the earthworm—could be caught with a speck of lowly dirt under his fingernails. How else could the bourgeoisie perform their distance from the working classes: the potato pickers, dirt diggers, and servants?
Interestingly, the French manicure was not at all French, but merely a marketing phrase invented by the Polish-born torturer of Hollywood stars, Max Factor. In 1927, he called it the “Society Nail Tint.” According to Factor, nails were to look pure, natural, and rosy like the dawn. Pink dyes, lotions, and powders were applied to the nails and then buffed to a dazzling shine with chamois cloths. The crescent moon at the base of the nail was pale and lustrous, the matrix, or nail plate glowed with a blush, and the free edge was filed to a precise, parabolic, flirtatious curve. Gloves—kid, lace, or otherwise—stood no chance against the communicative power of the stained nail.
The nature of nail polish was more akin to shoe polish than to the opaque, shiny enamel we know today. All of this changed in 1925, when high-gloss automotive car paint entered the marketplace. We can thank Michelle Manard for her flash of genius in applying car paint to human fingertips. Although Charles Revson, her boss and the founder of the Revlon company, got all the credit. We can thank Revson for copying the car and domestic commodity industry by placing nail polishes on the conveyer belt of planned obsolescence. The “nail man,” as Estée Lauder called him, touted his new rule: “Whatever the lipstick, the nail polish must match.” New tints and colors with alluring names were released to match the fabrics and colors of each fashion season. Half-used bottles of polish accumulated in vanity drawers. Revson also helped start the time-honored capitalist tradition of “marking-up.” When a bottle of nail polish costs ten cents at the local pharmacy, Revlon “enamels” cost fifty cents a pop. The two-inch pot of color became an aspirational object.
Revlon was greatly aided by Hollywood’s casting of nail polish in the movies. Rita Hayworth—the pined-after “Gilda”—was known for her fiery red hair, red lips, and luxurious red nails. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, too, helped promote the idea of nail polish as a sign of movie starlet pizzazz. Bright color was no longer garish, but glamorous. Later, as upperclass Americans caught on with the vacation-cruiseship craze of the roaring twenties and early, Depression-era thirties, exposure to the sun became permissible. Fair skin was no longer the only sign of the elite. “Even as paint goes on automobile bodies most smoothly when sprayed, sun-tan oil goes on human bodies when shot through an atomizer,” read a 1935 article in the The New York Times suggesting the appropriate polish colors for pale and tan skin, or “lily white” and “bisque” colorings. To underscore how pervasive nail polish was, the winning canine in a 1937 dog show sported red nails, and her show name was “Respectable Lady.” For common Depression-era women, colorful nails were a cheap and optimistic alternative to the jewels they could never own.
But this was soon to change with the advent of World War II. In September 1939, Great Britain imposed a ban on a long list of imports including cut flowers, leather goods, embroidery, soap, toys, umbrellas—as well as nail polish, clippers, and manicure kits. And while American men were off at war, women were encouraged to ration and save their beauty-supply containers. Mascara wands, polish bottles, and lipstick holders were presented at beauty store counters for refills. American girls were training to be secretaries and enter the work force. Their skirt lengths, shoe styles, and nail color were all subject to discussion and reproach. Entire courses were devised to teach women professional decorum, which really meant: no loud, clicky heels, no perfume, no tight sweaters, and certainly no gobs of blood-red nail polish on office correspondence.
The 1970s represented new technological advancements in nail culture with the inventions of polymer acrylics and Krazy Glue. Competitions were held to judge the quality of press-on nails. This was the main reason the curved edges of nails changed style after decades being in fashion. The square tip made it easier to determine the symmetry of the c-curve of the nails when looked at head on. In 1982 there were 80,000 nail technicians working in American salons. By 1992, that number had more than doubled.
Today, with the concurrent advent of elaborate nail art and gel technologies that extend lacquer lifespan, such semiotics of style continue to be played out in miniature. Artful nails—refracting like a dazzling diamonds on the spheres of national identity, social status, economics, and female empowerment—go to show that even the tiniest extremities can point to the workings of the whole wide world.