Manicures are personal.
Mascara, blush and lipstick are for the outward eye. Nails, on the other hand, are for your own personal enjoyment. Nobody sees your hands as much as you do. There is a certain joy in looking down at your keyboard, steering wheel, pen or silverware and having ten tiny paintings shining back at you. Your fingers are your personal canvas and arguably the most expressive form of style humans have.
Not only are manicures a reflection of self, but they mimic the times. Throughout history, the state of your nail beds reflects your social status. Even further, the nail trend reflected that stage of society. In some of history's darkest moments, a tiny bright-polished fingernail provided light and optimism to the community.
The stock market crash of 1929 devastated not only people’s bank accounts but their social life. In doing so, the lavish fashion of flashy dresses and pearls was quickly diminishing. Flapper girls were hanging on to manicures as their last sense of luxury for a cheap price. In 1932, Revlon crept into the market and released one single product: long-lasting nail enamel polish. It came in various girly tones from a deep seductive red to a flirty blush pink. Celebrity nail artist Miss Pop describes how this small act of self-expression was pivotal for women: “The minute there was nail polish, there was nail art," she explains, "Revlon red came out, and the half-moon was happening." Thus, the half-moon nail was born. Women would paint the lower bed of their nail, and leave the top half-crescent shape bare with only a clear coat. In a grey world, hope and creativity came in the form of a tiny bottle of color.
Just a mere decade later in 1942, the United States passed a law reducing all beauty products by 20%. The government felt that in the face of total war, lipsticks and nail polish were not a valuable use of resources. The world was living in fear of World War II, and the concerns of making it to tomorrow far surpassed the concern of lipstick smearing. As women were entering the armed forces, they held on to any sense of femininity they had left. Nail polish companies saw the opportunity to empower these women through manicures. While their faces may glisten with sweat, these women could look down and be reminded of the power of womanhood by their hands. These companies rallied around women in the armed forces, referring to them as “the best dressed.” A Cutex advertisement read, “Our government says: the more women at war the sooner we’ll win.” Red almond-shaped nails took the trend and were a constant reminder of patriotism. Common names of nail polish shades were “At Ease,” “Honor Bright,” “Black Red,” “On Duty,” “Off Duty” and “Young Red.” Perhaps the confidence boost in women from a petite colored nail gave them the persistence to fight through the war.
The war finally ended in 1945, but the economy remained depressed and rationed materials for years following. The fashion industry was not seen as essential and therefore remained subdued. It was not until spring 1948 that the United States freed the hold on materials and American fashion could be as “full and frilly” as women wanted. As the fashion industry erupted, women believed they had done their time in baggy workwear and that glamorous appearance was overdue. The nail industry was no exception. Nothing was off the table. The average woman felt eligible to have a matching manicure to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Nail polish was available at drug stores, press-on nails were a new movement, bold colors stole the eyes, long artificial nails were placed on with tin foil as a reminder that the work was done.
A long period of steady growth in our country followed the 1950s, and the nail trends mirrored it. The 1960s offered long oval-shaped nails in shiny peach polish, mimicking the peace and freedom marches, love beads, shaped sunglasses, LSD and marijuana. Hippies of the 1970s rebelled against every social norm before them, from war efforts to gender and race stereotypes. The fashion of the time resembled their anarchy, from changing big curly hair to long straight middle parts, long skirts covering the knee to miniskirts, and elongated fake nails to short bare nubs. The 1980s and 1990s took a more grunge approach to style with jeans and activewear, and nails got shorter, darker and crackled to complement. Change came with the turn of the century, and the 2000s proved anything could evolve. Nails now could tell your mood, show an embellishment and stay on for three weeks without chipping.
As 2020 stripped every sense of normalcy from the United States and kept the creatives caged in their homes, the ability to transform the nail trend once again verified the interrelation of nail beds and the times. A pandemic wiping our calendars clean left more time to perfect our ten oval canvases and find the smallest way to show our individuality without seeing anyone at all. Today’s nail trends are as outside of the box as we had hoped to be when trapped inside. The fashion industry has seen everything from painted eyeballs glaring back at you, a colored rainbow showcased across all ten fingers and marbled nails. Perhaps this nail trend served as a creative coping mechanism and a glimmer of hope for the days to come.
As nail fashion is constantly blossoming and nail beds are ever-growing, chipping and breaking, it is a reminder of the fleeting moment. With that, there is a sense of hope. The temporary commitment of a nail color offers endless varieties of self-expression. That is why the history of nail fashion will forever resemble the feelings of the time period. Fashion history writer Suzanne Shapiro sums it up perfectly in stating, “Manicures are a reliable and inexpensive way to treat ourselves to a little personal 'fix' and a fun way to play around with nail color, length and shape. Insecurities like age and body type don’t factor in, and as a short-term beauty treatment, there’s never the regret of a bad haircut, dye job or even tattoo. You can choose a whole new style — and even identity — until you change your mind and then just rub, soak or clip it off." With that, we have endless future possibilities.