Forget Reading Palms... I Can Read Your Nails!
Nail art goes back thousands of years,across a wide variety of cultures, all over the globe. Typically, it has represented class distinction, such as in China where the nobles wore their nails brightly colored, while the lesser classes couldn't paint their nails at all. This was a clear way of delineating rank among the masses. Egypt was also famous for painting nails and there the upper class favored a bright red. In Egypt, however it was possible for those of lower rank to paint their nails but they favored pale, neutral tones. Meanwhile, across the globe, the Inca painted tiny images of eagles on their nails.
Why nail "polish" never would have existed without the Model T.
Nail art has been around forever, but, not that we would modern denizens would recognize. Our modern nail polish would never have existed without the invention of... oddly enough... the automobile. When painting cars became fashionable, French designer Michelle Menard developed a high-gloss nail paint based off the lustrous paint for cars. In the hands of the (in)famous flapper of the 1920s, it quickly became popular. Especially the “moon manicure” which leaves the innermost crescent of the nail unpainted. Michelle Menard's company eventually perfected the paint by using pigment instead of simply dyeing the nail. Eventually, Menard became the well known cosmetics brand, Revlon. Later, with the development of colored film, starlets wore the brilliant scarlet nails (made popular by the ever fashionable actress Rita Hayworth) and it was quickly adopted by most of the Hollywood elite.
If it took that long for what we think of as nail polish to exist, what did it used to look like? Well it wasn't exactly “polish.” Instead nails were dipped in a mixture dye for several hours until they took on a bright colored hue. The concoction could include egg whites, wax, and flower petals all to get the desired colors and tones. In China, ruling families preferred specific colors such as gold or silver, and other nobility could wear other bright colors, such as red or black. In India, henna was popular to die the nails, not just paint elaborate designs across the skin. Even ancient Babylon had distinct nail colorings of Kohl (a dark cosmetic popular for creating an ancient version of the smokey eye). Regardless, all these applications were defined by class structure. Nobility wore the bright colors and the poor wore the neutral colors. Except for Babylon – there nobility wore black and the workers wore green.
"Goths are people too"
Nail art has been in the genes of our social makeup for as long as well... makeup. Adapting it to modern day hasn't changed much, it is a sign of wealth to be able to take good care of your hands and visit a salon on a regular basis. The difference today is that everyone has access to nail polish and color is no longer a matter of class. Rather, color now groups you into different subgenres of culture. For example: black nail polish will almost instantly label you as goth or punk. Why? Because after the punk rock wave in the late 1900s, many people of that cultural subgenre wore it as a representation of their music and lifestyle. Thus, when someone wears it today, it's now ingrained in our social psyche to think “goth” or “punk.” The same could be said for pink nail polish though, adopted by the pop culture icon the Valley Girl. So in a way, despite our movement away from identifying our nails with class, we still use them to identify with culture.
Painting with your personality
Apart from simple coloring, nails play an important role in first impressions and how we perceive one another. Judging by how old nail art is, it isn't surprising that we pay close attention to this small facet of our anatomy. Nails can be a sign of health, long strong nails proving months of healthy activity while shorter, damaged nails imply stress and bad eating habits. Cleanliness can also be read in nails by looking at how dirty or chipped they are. In Victorian times, cleanliness was paramount, so women - instead of painting their nails - would buffer and polish them – tainting them with red oil to give them a healthy, natural glow. The natural look is still very popular today with the invention of the French Manicure in the 1970s. A resurgence in healthy pink nails returned over the bright reds and pinks of the decadent decades before. At one point in history, nail polish competed with gloves for the ability to hide blemishes on the nails and judging by the lack of gloves worn in modern society, nail polish definitely won that war.
Despite the origins, nail polish is now an individual preference and declaration of style. The cheapness of the product through the years makes it very easy to afford and the demand in color has only increased leading to a plethora of choices at the store. Neon greens and pastel peaches all find their way on shelves vying for your attention. Even the ability to create art from the paint has changed. There are some now that can be affected by magnets creating patterns of ripples or star-bursts in the paint or glow in the dark (my personal favorite) for that alien costume on Halloween. You can now even use computer designed and printed decals to create a detailed image that overlays the actual polish, creating a photo-like finish on your nails.
Nails are a blank canvas waiting for your personality. They are meant to express not only your health but your individuality.