NAILS: A New Look at the History of Nail Art and the Modern Manicure


One might assume that our culture’s current fascination with nails is little more than a swiftly passing trend, explained by an influx in low-risk luxury purchases and encouraged by recession-era pragmatism. In other words, nail art is akin to the cupcake—the thrill of a manicure being inherently temporary, though thrilling nonetheless. But that’s the simple answer. (And the far more boring one.) To Suzanne Shapiro, Brooklyn-based author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure, the tips of our fingers say more than just our spending habits—they tell a story that’s as fickle and fluid as the attitude of the person wearing them.

All photos by Lauren Silberman

In Nails, Shapiro, a research assistant at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, traces the manicure’s position in society from Egyptian antiquity to the modern-day Tokyo nail expo. She uncovers surprising tidbits, like the fact that pierced nails have existed as early as 1900 and that the high-res capability of contemporary digital photography is what’s been spurring the current trend of ultra-detailed nail art which demands camera attention, as well as predictions about the industry’s future, which—spoiler alert—will likely involve fashion’s current favorite buzzword, “wearable tech,” thanks to the invention of the 3-D printed acrylic nail. With each anecdote, Shapiro’s thesis becomes more apparent: that women’s nails, like our bodies, have always been used as a template on which to inscribe culture, but only recently have they been embraced as a tool for individual expression.

What’s most intriguing, then, is how the introduction of commercial colored nail polish around 1914 coincided with widespread photography to spur the fetishization of the painted nail. “It’s actually a very modern phenomenon, completely within the last hundred years of photo-documented culture,” Shapiro says. “I think when we reach for nail polish, we tap into our collective visual memory… I’ve come across a few accounts of isolated individuals seeing painted nails for the first time, and they tend to be rather disturbed by them!”

It is this last hundred years that the book focuses on, due to the nail’s prominent place in 20th century film, from the first It Girl, Brooklyn-born actress and flapper icon Clara Bow’s “conspicuously manicured nails” that offset 1920’s androgyny, to print advertisements featuring pointed, bright red tips in the early days of women’s magazines, to the airbrushed and bejeweled spectacles in hip-hop videos. “I found the 1930s particularly interesting. Despite—or because of—the newness of nail polish, there was a lot of experimentation… In the face of the Depression, nail color really flourished, not unlike what’s happened in recent years,” Shapiro says.

The painted nail, not unlike the painted lip, has always been an impermanent way to alter one’s appearance with bright colors, but unlike lipstick, it’s inexplicable by evolutionary universalities. “Nails tend to be admired most by the person to whom they’re attached,” Shapiro states in the book’s introduction, which is one of its most revealing sentences. “Most of my research affirmed more recent trends in feminist scholarship, recognizing the importance of our beauty rituals. They’re a big part of our identity, as individuals and members of a group. After learning about so many bold female entrepreneurs in nail care and eminent personalities who just really loved nails, it became even more evident that our affection for manicures is hardly dependent on manipulation from men,” she says.

It’s precisely because of the personal aspect of nail art that I asked Shapiro what she opts for at the salon, and she’s more inclined to natural nails than you might expect: “I’ve revamped my home nail care regimen this year and finally can grow long, natural nails. I’ve been wearing them almond-shaped and solidly painted these days, as a bit of a 1980s and earlier revival.” But that’s not to say she hasn’t done her fair share of experimentation: “I’ve requested nails inspired by the Chrysler building, Georgia O’Keeffe, Chinese cloisonné, Hermes scarves and yachting flags.”

And the question everyone’s surely dying to know? For the Brooklyn nail enthusiast, Shapiro recommends Hello Beautiful in Williamsburg “for really deluxe artistry” and Barry’s Beauty Bar in Flatbush “for fierce, jewel-covered nails.” You know where to find us.

Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure is available now.






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