To the majority of people with a passing interest in fashion, or even an ability to notice other people’s hands, the nail art phenomenon is nothing new. From the balmy August day in 2009 when Wah-Nails first opened its doors the idea of statement nails hit the mainstream and the notion of a French Manicure became as obsolete as the twin set and the crinoline. Christmas is no exception. Who doesn’t long for deep sparkling gold or holly-inspired red and green to adorn their fingers during the party season? (I for one am planning to paint my nails as miniature Christmas puddings, and surely I can’t be alone.)

But the beauty of this trend is not limited to the fingertips. An instant democratiser of fashion, nail art can be a cheap and cheerful way to liven up your wardrobe in these austere times, much like the brightly coloured Bakelite jewellery that became all the rage during the Depression of the ‘30s. And it works both ways. What can be yours for just £2.99 at the Barry M counter can at the other end of the spectrum cost around $300 for real snakeskin to be diligently applied to your nails; Minx from the morgue for the morbidly discerning customer.

There is surprisingly little information available on the history of this practice. For example, everyone has heard of the practice of foot binding in Imperial China but less people know that women of the court were expected to grow their nails to around 6 inches long to prove how far removed they were from the concept of manual labour, or the ability to do anything for themselves at all. Nail protectors of jade or gold filigree were often worn to protect these lustrous symbols of royalty. Examples of nail colouring can be found in ancient civilisations from the Egyptians to the Incas, and Henna to dye skin and nails has been used throughout India and the Middle East since antiquity.

Advances throughout the nineteenth century led to the development of the manicure complete with coloured oils, tinted powders and buffing. But the real innovation came in the ‘20s and ‘30s with the rise of two distinctly American phenomena: cars and movies. Around 1920 the glossy paint used for automobiles was adapted for use on the fingernails and an industry was born. The ‘moon manicure’ was popularised by Hollywood actresses from the mid-’20s, which left the half-moon and tip bare with a flash of red or pink at the centre of the nail. In 1927 Max Factor introduced a rosy cream and a white liquid that formed the basis of what became known as the French manicure. Then in 1932 Revlon was founded on a single product – an opaque nail enamel – which saw it become a multimillion dollar company in just 6 years.

Celluloid has certainly been good to the nail industry. On a personal level, Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret has led me on a perpetual hunt to find the perfect shade of green. But on a wider scale The Women (1939) and Pulp Fiction (1994) have had the biggest influence. A gossiping manicurist is used as a key plot device in George Cukor’s The Women, and her recommended shade of Jungle Red is a recurring motif that becomes inextricably bound to danger and infidelity as personified in the ostentatious glamour of Joan Crawford. It left such a lasting impression that NARS released a Jungle Red set in 2008 to tie in with the remake. It soon became their best-selling colour of all time.

When Uma Thurman donned Chanel’s Rouge Noir in Pulp Fiction (1994) it flew off the shelf faster than Mia Wallace coming round after an adrenaline shot. Its origins have a similar grungy undertone; a Chanel make up artist covered models’ nails with black marker pen for a pre-show picture and recreated the colour for the catwalk. That it happens to be the colour of dried blood lends it a dark edge that catapulted nail polish away from the safety of the Working Girl-style peaches and pinks of the ‘80s and slap bang back into Jungle Red/danger territory, ensuring it became one of the most sought-after products in the history of the company. Rouge Noir was discontinued shortly after it was released, beginning the marketing genius of Chanel’s current Le Vernis range that produces limited-edition sell-out colours each season, my own favourites of recent years being Jade and Mimosa.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century nail art has really come of age. Cult brands like Essie and OPI are 30 years old this year, various designs were immortalised at the V&A’s ‘Power of Making’ and the Nailympics (now in its seventh year) was even the unlikely subject of a Radio 4 documentary. And what better way to celebrate than London’s first nail art show, Nailphilia, which ran throughout September and promised to turn nails into “the art world’s smallest canvas” by featuring traditional artists alongside nail technicians such as Sophie Harris-Greenslade of The Illustrated Nail. Thankfully for those of us who feel naked without a layer of paint between our keratin and the outside world this trend shows no sign of slowing down. The gamut of hugely popular nail blogs keeps growing and with content ranging from the imaginative (Daily Nail) to review-based (Nailphile) and epicurean (Nailburgerlar), you can rest assured that you have all the nail art you need right at your fingertips.


Image source: Imperial China Nails from: Warner, Marina The Dragon Empress: The Life and Times of Tz’u-Hsi 1835-1908, Empress Dowager of China (1988). Illustrated Nail (Christmas), Nailburgerlar 1Nailburgerlar 2, Nailphilia images all from Nailphilia.


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