A visual history of fingernail fashion

Manicures are personal.

Unlike hair or makeup, people see their fingernails all day, without the need for a mirror. Their appearance matters to a lot of people; it is a way to express individual style. A good manicure can cheer you up all day long, while you are texting or clinking glasses with friends. 

People throughout history have paid special attention to their fingernail real estate. It has been said that nail trends date back to 5000 B.C. when women in India decorated their fingertips with henna. Later, in 4000 B.C. Babylonian men were known to manicure and colour their nails with black or green kohl. The Chinese are credited with creating nail stains from egg whites, vegetable dyes and beeswax as early as 3000 B.C.

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3200 B.C., Babylonia

Excavations of royal tombs found the first manicure set in ancient Babylonia. Babylonian males of all classes wore nail polish, but instead of using henna like Indians are speculated to have used prior, they used kohl. The colour of the nail worn by the males signified class, with black worn by the higher classes and green worn by the lower classes. 

IMAGE: An 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian kohl container inscribed for Queen Tiye (1410–1372 BCE).

 
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3000 B.C., China/Egypt

The Chinese used nail colour as a distinction of class and dynasty. They combined egg whites, beeswax, Arabic gum, and flower petals to create a pigment that they would soak their nails in for hours to reach a desirable effect. The process was reserved for the upper class, and the colour worn generally reflected the colours of the ruling dynasty. 

Around the same time as the Chinese, ancient Egyptians women began staining their nails using henna. However, unlike the Chinese, people of all classes were permitted to beautify their fingernails. Like the Babylonian men, colours were used to distinguish among the classes, with the lower classes wearing pale colours and the upper classes wearing shades of red. Nefertiti is said to have painted her nails with ruby tones, while Cleopatra wore hers blood red. 

IMAGE: Neferneferuaten Nefertiti (c. 1370 – c. 1330 BC) was a queen of the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten.

 
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While polish colours, designs and products have altered drastically throughout the ages, popular nail shapes are cyclical. 

Beauty trendsetters Rihanna and Kylie Jenner might have led the recent charge toward long, pointed talons but they were not the first women to do so.  

Take a look back in time to discover where nail trends really began. 

 
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Over the years various screen sirens, singers and cultural icons have popularized nail styles rotating between a few shapes. Each style had its moment in the spotlight. 

"Each era witnessed numerous styles and individual preferences," Suzanne E. Shapiro author of the book, Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure, said. "There was a general movement from rounded, short nails towards elongated ovals in the mid-20th century, and then towards squared-off shapes from the ‘70s on. Starting in the mid ‘90s, the short squoval nail became the new, chic statement, still fashionable today among a multiplicity of distinctive styles, like stiletto and coffin nails." 

IMAGE: "Nails - The Story of the Modern Manicure" by author Suzanne E. Shapiro

 

LATE 1800S & EARLY 1900S

The word "manicure" was a title given to a professional who buffed nail beds and cleaned cuticles, according to Shapiro in Nails. After studying nail care in France and marrying podiatrist J. Parker Pray, American Mary E. Cobb created her own nail upkeep system and opened the country's first manicure salon in Manhattan in 1878.

IMAGE: Mary E. Cobb (May 1852 – January 30, 1902) was the first known American manicurist and introduced modern nail manicuring to Britain and the United States.

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1800s, Britain

Purity and hygiene were all the rage during the Victorian era, so clean nails were a must. The most popular type of manicure was simple, merely buffering nails and tinting them with red oil.

IMAGE: An advertisement for Cobb's manicure products in an 1893 Marshall Fields catalog

 

Fingernail maintenance was originally thought of as a medical and hygienic industry. Short, round nails were easily kept clean and symbolized a wealthy life of leisure.

Short, round nails were easily kept clean and symbolized a wealthy life of leisure.

IMAGE: Early 20th century actress and singer, Lily Elsie

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During the Roaring Twenties, flappers shed their conservative dresses for liberating, skin-bearing looks. Drinking and smoking were glamorized as cigarette campaigns advertised beautiful women with well-manicured round nails.

IMAGE: A tobacco advertisement from the 1920s

 
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LATE 1920S & 1930S

After the stock market crash in 1929, the appreciation for manicures seemed to grow. Shapiro believes women held onto the practice as an inexpensive way to maintain a sense of luxury. 

Launching in 1932 with only a single product (long lasting formula nail enamel), Revlon helped push nail polish into the mass market. Delicate pinks and bold red hues allowed wearers to have fun with colour.  

"The minute there was nail polish, there was nail art," celebrity nail artist Miss Pop said. "Revlon red came out, and the half moon was happening." 

Stars like actress Joan Crawford showed off a sharp, pointed style that was painted red just in the centre of the nail. 

 IMAGE: Actress Joan Crawford wearing a pointy moon manicure 

 
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Both the tip and natural crescent at the cuticle — known as the lunula, or "little moon," in Latin — were left bare except for a clear gloss overlay. This style became wildly popular and known as the half-moon manicure.

IMAGE: Rose Joan Blondell (August 30, 1906 – December 25, 1979) was an American actress who performed in film and television for half a century.

 
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1920, France

Inspired by high-gloss car paint, makeup artist Michelle Menard adapted the enamel used for cars for use on nails, resulting in a glossy lacquer similar to the polish we use today. Her creation was popular among flappers who generally only painted the middle of the nail, leaving the cuticles and tip bare in a style known as “The Moon Manicure.” 

IMAGE: Inspired by high-gloss car paint, makeup artist Michelle Menard adapted the enamel used for cars for use on nails, resulting in a glossy lacquer similar to the polish we use today.

 

1932, America

The company that Menard worked perfected her formula using pigments instead of dyes and eventually evolved into a cosmetic house called Revlon. The company started off only producing nail enamel in a variety of colours that were sold at drug stores and department stores during the Great Depression. However, they expanded their line of cosmetics at the beginning of WWII to include lipstick and other makeup.

IMAGE: Dorothy Flood, a performer in Broadway's Ziegfeld Follies

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1940S & 1950S

During World War II, nail polish companies rallied around women in the armed forces, referring to them "the best dressed." These campaigns featured ladies with longer, almond-shaped nails colored in various shades of solid red.

IMAGE: A vintage Cutex advertisement during World War II

 
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Prestigious fashion magazines and respected actresses promoted this elegant trend and it soon replaced the moon manicure as one of the most popular silhouettes.  

Starlets like a young Elizabeth Taylor and I Love Lucy's Lucille Ball brought the almond-shaped manicure to screens throughout America and onto the nails of the women who watched them.  

1940s, America 

With the help of Technicolor and glamorous actresses, embellished nails became an element of high fashion during the 1940s. Once again, red symbolized regality and was worn by Hollywood royalty. The most famous red nails of the time belonged to Rita Hayworth, a well-known actress whose signature crimson hair and nails danced across the screen alongside Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly

IMAGE: Actress Lucille Ball shows off almond nails in October 1943.

 
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1960S

The Supremes, Dionne Warwick, Connie Francis and Etta James were just a few of the female vocalists who transformed the music scene in the 1960s. Thanks to the hit show American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark, fans from around the nation could watch their favourite artists perform, taking in their sounds and styles simultaneously. 

Miss Pop believes that female musicians have always been the most influential force in dictating nail trends. 

“When you’re a singer, you’re gonna hold a microphone and it’s always right next to your face," and "You want to have gorgeous nails. You want them to be exceptional just like the rest of your outfit." 

IMAGE: American singer Connie Francis

 

Long oval nails coated in “barely there” shades like pastel pink and shiny peach ruled the decade. Mod mavens like fashion model Twiggy and actress Barbra Streisand were known to flaunt this style.

IMAGE: Barbra Streisand in 1965

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1970S & 1980S

While many hippies opted for short, unfinished nails, the disco crowd loved to show off glamorous manicures. Divas like Cher and Donna Summer dramatized the oval shape by extending it even longer and adding shine

IMAGE: LaDonna Adrian Gaines (December 31, 1948 – May 17, 2012), widely known by her stage name based on her married name Donna Summer, was an American singer, songwriter and actress. She gained prominence during the disco era of the 1970s and became known as the "Queen of Disco", while her music gained a global following.

 

1976, France

The French manicure made its debut on Paris runways and became an instant success. The simple look was created by Jeff Pink, the founder of ORLY, who wanted to a create a nail style that was more practical and versatile. 

IMAGE: Blame its popularity on Cher. She was one of the first celebs to really make the style famous. America seemed to adore those striking white tips, and now look where they are: on Midwestern high school girls who still wear coordinating sweatsuits.

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Mid 1970s-1990s, United Kingdom/America

Nail polish bent gender lines during the punk rock and grunge movements. Both males and females adorned their nails with the black nail polish that symbolized the gritty music.

IMAGE: Disco star Donna Summer

 
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With the invention of the French manicure in 1978, square shapes began to rule.  

A few years later dental supply company Odontorium Products Inc. converted its denture acrylics into a product for fingers and shortened its company name to OPI, eventually becoming the wildly successful polish brand we have today. The nail extension technique transformed the community by providing a larger, more stable canvas for detailed nail art. 

Female R&B artists and U.S. Olympian Florence Griffith-Joyner helped solidify extra-long square and oval-square nails known as "squoval" as the reigning shape through the '80s. 

IMAGE: Florence Griffith-Joyner's decorated fingernails at the Olympics in 1989

 
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1990S & EARLY 2000S

Similar to the previous decade, square and squoval shapes remained the predominate styles of choice, as seen in Kid Sister's "Pro Nails" music video. The singer and Kanye West performed the song in a salon while hundreds of bedazzled and airbrushed fingers danced around them.  Many women also began to stray from wearing tips far past their finger's edge, opting for shorter, more natural lengths.

IMAGE: Princess Diana sporting short, squoval nails while visiting Argentina

 

Delicate, rounded squares were considered demure and feminine, favoured by Princess Diana, while pop star Britney Spears preferred crisp right angles.

IMAGE: Britney Spears in her Toxic music video in 2003

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PRESENT DAY

"The exciting thing about nails right now is there is a style for everyone," Miss Pop said. "You can have crazy competition-length nails with gemstones, or you can have natural nails with a little negative space. There is just so much diversity and it is meant to reflect the personality of the woman getting her nails done. She’s directing her style." 


Nail art has become somewhat of a trend, as new polish textures, sheens and embellishments are made available for intricate designs. A longer lasting formula called Gel Polish has also gained popularity due to its increased durability that keeps the polish intact for two to three weeks. 

IMAGE: Kylie Jenner shows off pointy stiletto nails.

 

Structural fingertips like the coffin and stiletto are popular with edgier crowds, while oval and almond silhouettes are favoured by those looking for a timeless style. 

That mindset is evident in the variety of styles we are seeing today and the rapid pace at which women alter between them. It no longer takes decades for new nails to rule. Thanks to stars like Rihanna and Kylie Jenner who are constantly changing their look, it takes only days. 

IMAGE: Adele at the Oscars in 2013

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WHAT'S NEXT?

Miss Pop believes that a shorter, more rounded coffin, known as the ballerina file, will grow in popularity. With culture having such a strong influence over trends, however it is hard to predict where that will lead nails in 2020. 

One thing is certain, nail care will endure. 

"Manicures are a reliable and inexpensive way to treat ourselves to a little personal 'fix' and a fun way to play around with nail colour, length and shape," Shapiro said. "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." 

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