Manicure History | 125 Years of Fingernail Trends

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's a way to express individual style. A good manicure can cheer you up all day long, while you're texting or clinking glasses with friends.

People throughout history have paid special attention to their fingernail real estate. It's 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 color 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.

While polish colors, 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.

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, told Mashable. "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."

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.
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.
Early 20th century actress and singer, Lily Elsie

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.

A tobacco advertisement from the 1920s

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 color.

"The minute there was nail polish, there was nail art," celebrity nail artist Miss Pop told Mashable. "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 center of the nail. 
Actress Joan Crawford wearing a pointy moon manicure

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. 
Dorothy Flood, a performer in Broadway's Ziegfeld Follies

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. 
A vintage Cutex advertisement during World War II

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


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 favorite 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," she told Mashable "You want to have gorgeous nails. You want them to be exceptional just like the rest of your outfit."
You want to have gorgeous nails. You want them to be exceptional just like the rest of your outfit.
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.
Barbra Streisand in 1965


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.
Disco star Donna Summer


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.
You can choose a whole new style — and even identity — until you change your mind and then just rub, soak or clip it off.
Florence Griffith-Joyner's decorated fingernails at the Olympics in 1989


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.

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. 
Britney Spears in her Toxic music video in 2003


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

That mindset is evident in the variety of styles were are seeing today and the rapid pace at which women alter between them. It no longer take decades for new nails to rule. Thanks to stars like Rihanna and Kylie Jenner who are constantly changing their look, it takes only days.
Adele at the Oscars in 2013



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's hard to predict where that will lead nails in 2016.

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 color, 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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Lots of Love!!!