Archivist and author, Suzanne Shapiro has recently penned a book titled Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure that traces the origins and evolution of the painted nail. Shapiro’s beautiful 176 page book features 220 illustrations and every detail you’d ever want to know about when and why women started obsessing over perfectly polished nails. All of us at ITA are manicure addicts so naturally we jumped at the chance to speak with Suzanne about her book in greater detail. Read our in-depth Q&A with the author below and click through a few of the images featured in her book.
What sparked your interest in exploring the history of manicures and nail art
When I moved to New York City ten years ago, I was struck by the sheer number of nail salons; they’re on practically every block. I wondered when women began to care so deeply about nails as an aspect of beauty and found that no one had really explored the cultural significance of the manicure in great depth. When I began my own research, I quickly realized what a surprisingly rich topic it was—worthy of a graduate thesis and then eventually, a whole book.
Were you able to identify when and where the manicure made its debut
It depends what you mean by “manicure” as such. Men and women have always taken measures to trim and clean their nails as basic element of good grooming, and certain cultures have used stains, dyes, and other preparations for added adornment. But as it relates to Western fashion, I’d identify two main turning points in the history of the manicure, when conspicuous new styles came into being. In the 1890s, there was something of a fad for highly buffed and polished nails, so much so that ladies’ magazines felt the need to call out their purported vulgarity. And for our purposes, 1929 might be considered the big bang of modern manicuring. Women had been experimenting with nail color through the ‘20s, but in the summer of 1929, the fashion press took notice when European socialites began to polish their nails with deep red enamel. Hollywood and bolder personalities soon took up this risqué look, which really took off in the 1930s.
What is the most surprising fact you learned about the origination of manicures
Although shades of rose and red were most popular by far, nail polish was actually available in a whole range of unusual shades in the early 1930s: onyx, jade green, violet, and pearl white among them. The object was to match or complement one’s ensemble, much like our taste for nail color today.
How did you approach researching this topic
As historians, we’re lucky to be present in this golden age of digitization, and digital collections like the Vogue Archive, the TIME Archive, and the American Periodicals and New York Times databases figured highly into my research. I found marvelous documents and images in library special collections across the country, in person at the Condé Nast archives, and sometimes quite serendipitously, flipping through popular magazines found at stoop sales and the like. I’m quite indebted to scholars like Kathy Peiss and Aileen Ribeiro for their compelling examinations of women’s beauty rituals through time.
Do you feel pressured to always have perfectly manicured nails since the book released
Ha, yes! I do it to myself, though. I’ve met many wonderful, talented nail artists during this project, and I enjoy sporting their artistry whenever possible. And fortunately, I’ve finally been able to grow my nails long, giving them a better canvas to work on. I just feel bad when I’m conversing with someone about my book and she tells me not to look at her undone, chipped, or bitten nails. I swear I don’t judge!
Why do you think nail design and manicures have evolved into such a major trend as of recent
There are a variety of factors, but I’d say that the two most significant have been the economic downturn and the internet. Especially when more extravagant personal spending is impossible, a new, buzzworthy nail color or treatment is a mercifully cheap way to keep up with fashion and have a bit of indulgent fun. Based on striking data for salon services and DIY products, it’s true that the so-called “lipstick index”—which observes healthy sales during hard times—has been replaced by the “nail polish index.”
Also, the fact that many of us live out much of our lives online has been hugely influential. There’s a reason why social media outlets, Pinterest pinboards and Instagram accounts are full of manicure selfies. Women have been broadcasting and trading nail art ideas and color tests en masse, and I think they take great pleasure knowing that their fabulous manicures will be seen by friends and frenemies alike. It almost gives their manis a second life, far beyond the usual two weeks or so.
What are some projects that you have in the works
Professionally, I recently left my job at the Met Museum’s Costume Institute for an exciting new position as Archive Manager at PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and other major brands. And I’m thrilled to be lining up regular speaking engagements on behalf of Nails, including the Phoenix Art Museum and a fundraiser for the historical society where I got my start in Middletown, Connecticut. Lectures at other arts institutions and select salons are also in the works; it’s great that my book is managing to straddle the fine art and beauty industry worlds. And as far as my next book goes, it will not be about pedicures, as I’m often asked!
Where can manicure enthusiasts buy your book
Many wonderful independent bookstores across the U.S. and Canada are stocking it, and a friend visiting Karl Lagerfeld’s Librairie 7L in Paris reported seeing it too. In New York, look for it at the Strand, the MoMA Book Store, Kinokuniya, and McNally Jackson, among others; my friend Rita Pinto is also selling it at her fantastic nail art atelier, Vanity Projects. In the greater LA area, it’s at Arcana and Hennessey + Ingalls. Check in with your favorite local bookseller, and there’s always Amazon and Barnes & Noble too.