From ancient Egypt to Cardi B: a cultural history of the manicure

“How to Take a Nail Selfie!” “Fruity Manicure Inspo!” “Kylie Jenner Slammed by Fans for Nearly Poking Out Stormi’s Eyes With Ridiculous Claw Nails.”

The glut of hyperbolic nail-related headlines online points to our obsession with the endless possibilities open to the plate at the top of our fingers. In the internet age, the manicure, in all its incarnations, is a traffic winner. It peppers a plethora of Pinterest boards; the hashtag #nails has been posted 151m times on Instagram; nail artists are stars in their own right; and countless women will assert that manicures are a form of self-care. Detractors dismiss it all as frivolity.

When the pandemic hit, online musings about manicures became less about beautification. Rather, there was a sudden, stark realisation that the colouring, decorating and embellishing of fingernails is, for many, not simply a preoccupation but an occupation. From the social media furore provoked by a New York Times article questioning the future of the nail industry in an age of social distancing to the accusation of misogyny levelled at Boris Johnson for refusing to consider beauty businesses in the government’s lockdown exit plans, the innocuous manicure suddenly entered a quagmire of controversy.

A closer look, however, reveals that this is nothing new: cuticle culture has long been entangled in highly charged matters, from classism and racial discrimination to politics and human rights issues.

The genesis of the manicure cannot be attributed to one culture. Archeologists discovered Egyptian mummies (dating to 5,000 BC) with gilded nails and henna-tinted fingertips. Around the same time, Indian women were staining their nails with henna, while ancient Babylonian men used kohl to colour their nails.

According to Nails: The History of the Modern Manicure, archaeologists unearthed a solid gold manicure set in southern Babylonia, dating to 3,200 BC, that was apparently part of combat equipment. Given that manicures are now considered – and regularly derided – as a female pastime, this gives the term “war paint” a whole new meaning.

The social significance of red nails has been a constant through the ages. They have been reserved for the elite, highlighting nail beds and social inequalities

The Chinese are often credited with creating the first “nail polish”, in 3,000 BC. Women soaked their nails in a combination of egg whites, gelatine, beeswax and dyes from flower petals; roses and orchids were the most popular. The result was shiny nails tinted reddish pink. Long, coloured talons – usually worn with highly decorative nail guards created with hammered brass sheets inlaid with semi-precious stones – were an indication of wealth and social status. The assumption was that you could not possibly have such nails if you were of a lower class. Field work and 15cm talons do not coexist well.

The social significance of red nails has been a constant through the ages. They have been reserved for the elite, highlighting nail beds and social inequalities. Members of the Ming dynasty sported crimson nails with lengthy extensions, while the Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra were famed for wearing red nails: lower-ranking citizens were forbidden from wearing anything but pale shades. That is striking now, considering how much understated hues – with the notable example of the classic French manicure, which was created in 1975 by the American Jeff Pink, the president of Orly Nails – have been associated with the elite social circles of Wasps and Chelsea-ites. (That said, the style later became popular with the Essex set and once again frowned upon.)

Joan Crawford, half-moon nails on show, with Clark Gable, in 1933’s Dancing Lady
Joan Crawford, half-moon nails on show, with Clark Gable, in 1933’s Dancing Lady Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

What the French – specifically the makeup artist Michelle Menard – can be credited with, however, is introducing a glossy nail polish in the 20s using car paint, although it was available only to a limited few. That changed in 1932 when Revlon launched what we now know as nail polish and opened this aspect of manicuring to the masses. The popularity of nail colour continued for decades, even in times of economic instability, when it was considered an affordable and justifiable luxury. Some shades, such as Chanel’s Rouge Noir, became famous. In 1995, this dried-blood hue, popularised by Uma Thurman’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, sold out on the first day it launched. The hype created a 12-month waiting list; it is still Chanel’s bestselling product.

The ritual of having one’s nails painted by a professional was largely the preserve of the wealthy until the rise of the nail bar. Thea Green, the founder of Nails Inc, was instrumental in bringing nail bars to the UK. “My lightbulb moment came on a work trip to New York, where I noticed nail bars offering quick, cheap manicures for busy professionals. I was a 23-year-old fashion editor at Tatler at the time – but I knew there was a gap in the market here, so I went for it,” she told Management Today. She opened her first nail bar in 1999, quickly expanded across the country. More recently, she launched a “clean” nail polish range.

While Green was about taking the speedy nail bar to customers with a penchant for a classic manicure, the beauty entrepreneur Sharmadean Reid created a movement for a nail tribe looking for something more avant garde. In 2009, she launched Wah Nails in Dalston, east London. This edgy manicure bar specialised in nail art – an antidote to the safe and well-mannered manicures that were all the rage, and a style that was steeped in black culture and Reid’s passion for hip-hop culture .

It was an immediate hit with the super-cool fashion crowd. Around this time, I met an influential stylist, who was white, in east London. The first thing I noticed were her nails – bright, blinging nail art that I knew to be the mainstay of rap stars such as Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim (the money manicure) and Jamaica-born women, be it on the streets of Brixton, where I lived, or on the dancehall scene where girls whined on their heads to Shabba Ranks. My feeling was a hybrid of bemusement, despair and rage at seeing a trend so often deemed vulgar, ghetto and unrefined when worn by black women confidently sported by a white woman as though she were a trailblazer. It highlighted, once again, that things born from black culture are rarely deemed acceptable unless repackaged in whiteness.

Nail art, of sorts, was popular in the 30s, when Joan Crawford wore the era’s popular crescent moon style, around the same time that Life magazine ran a piece on monogrammed nails. But it was black women who would be at the helm of nail art’s modern cultural resurgence. They gave it new life, from Donyale Luna, the first woman of colour to appear on the cover of US Vogue, and the singer Glodean White , the wife of the late soul crooner Barry White, to to exemplars in the 80s and 90s such as Coko from SWV and Janet Jackson in the futuristic Busta Rhymes video for What’s it Gonna Be?!, where she sported hoop-pierced acrylic nails.

These performers helped to create a look – bejewelled, flamboyant and over the top – that felt like black women pushing back against Eurocentric expectations that they should shrink from prominence. Instead, black women were creating their own language around what was beautiful. It’s no coincidence that US gymnast Nia Dennis wore long, tapered talons to perform a routine, which went viral this week, and was lauded for introducing elements of black culture into a traditionally Eurocentric sport.

Nia Dennis competes on the floor during an NCAA gymnastics meet against Arizona State, a performance which went viral
Nia Dennis competes on the floor during an NCAA gymnastics meet against Arizona State, a performance which went viral Photograph: Kyusung Gong/AP

Black women have been repeatedly stigmatised for nail art. In, 2016, for example, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times writer, had the validity of her employment questioned by an esteemed white writer at a media conference. She was then asked by him whether she would be off to get her nails done. Meanwhile, the American three-time gold-winning Olympic athlete Florence Griffith Joyner, whose record as the world’s fastest woman still stands, found her achievements constantly overshadowed by the media’s obsession with – and covert repulsion at – her jewelled acrylic nails. And yet, in 2020, it is Kylie Jenner who is routinely credited and celebrated for the trend.

Today, nail art is not an unusual sight – even mainstream salons in posh areas offer this service – as do nail bars run by people of Vietnamese origin. Some nail bars – now present on every high street – offer a manicure for as little as £10, making them immensely popular; an indulgence accessible to all. Surely this is inclusivity at its best?

Alas, “cheap luxury” is not only an oxymoron; it also has a sinister side. Many reports, such as one in 2017 by Kevin Hyland, then the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner, show the shocking links between nail bars and human trafficking. Nail bars are an easy way to hide victims in plain sight, because the nail industry is completely unregulated. Many nail bars bring vulnerable, usually undocumented men and women into the country and force them to work. The shocking deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in a lorry in October 2019 – many of whom were trafficked to work in nail bars – reignited calls to tackle exploitation in the industry. In November, the lack of regulation in the industry led Marian Newman – the manicurist on the film OG, who has worked on some of the biggest fashion shows and campaigns – to launch the Federation of Nail Professionals. The hope is to represent the industry at government level and raise standards across the sector in order to minimise and eventually eradicate unethical working practices.

Doing so would also benefit the legitimate nail bars run by people of south-east Asian origin, many of whom have told me that they have experienced a decline in footfall, compared with their white counterparts, since Covid hit, even before the first lockdown. In the US, the xenophobic rhetoric employed by figures such as Donald Trump legitimised anti-Asian sentiment. It also gave licence to the likes of Tik Toker Amy Shark to mock Vietnamese nail bar workers – a misjudged act of racism dressed up as comedy for which she later apologised.

The scale of the pandemic threatens the entire beauty industry. The London-based Local Data Company reported at the end of 2020 that, since last March, 4,578 beauty services businesses in Britain have gone out of business. The startling impact of Covid is perhaps why articles predicting the end of the manicure draw such ire. When, after the first lockdown, the government permitted barbers to reopen, but not beauty services such as nail bars – a move widely criticised as sexist – Caroline Hirons, the aesthetician and key influencer, set up Beauty Backed. This initiative, in conjunction with the British Beauty Council, is raising money for the out-of-work beauty professionals who did not qualify for government support. A petition lobbying the prime minister to reopen the beauty industry was signed by nearly 30,000 people. The government finally relented.

If anything, it feels as if, through its absence during lockdowns, the love for the manicure has intensified

We are now in another lockdown and, once again, nail technicians – like so many others – are out of work. Many have switched to holding virtual masterclasses and collaborating with brands on social media. If anything, it feels as if, through its absence, the love for the manicure has intensified.

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This is unsurprising. There is a reason why women such as Chaun Legend (whose clients include Kylie Jenner and Cardi B), Mei Kawajiri (named one of the 2019 New Wave Creatives at the British Fashion awards) and Betina Goldstein (responsible for the talons of Zoë Kravitz, Florence Pugh and Gemma Chan) are known as “nail artists”. And there is a reason why nail salons such as DryBy (responsible for the Duchess of Sussex’s wedding manicure), the uber-cool Camberwell-based Reecey Roo and Ama Nails, the Brixton salon led by British Vogue favourite Ama Quashie, are making waves in the industry. Under their watch, manicure has been elevated to an art form.

Beyond the obvious talent and creativity it nurtures, it forms part of a beauty economy that generates £30bn for the UK economy every year. So, for all the exaggerated, seemingly facile, traffic-driving nail-related headlines, to dismiss the manicure as frivolity would be foolish. But neither can it be detached from race, culture, class or gender. This intersection guarantees not only that manicures will remain political, but also that they will continue to exist, in some form, long after the pandemic ceases.