Nail Art: Then and Now

Posted: July 9, 2014 - 11:29 , by Amanda Girgis
Empress Dowager Cixi, Image by Jung Chang

Women have grown, groomed and decorated their fingernails for over 5000 years – From the women of Ancient Egypt to the nail salon industry that flourished during the 80s and 90s, nail trends have had authority over beauty regimes across regions and eras. By the late 20th century manicured fingernails would become a sign of the leisure class among many different cultures.  Grooming your fingernails parallels the act of using cosmetics, it exhibits self-expression and character. Although the repertoires of nail styles go in and out of fashion today, nail arts’ function goes beyond aesthetic purposes. For centuries, decorative embellishments on lengthy fingernails served as social indicators. In China for example, long extravagant nails often alluded that a family could remove a woman from active labour.

Elite women in the Forbidden City grew extremely long fingernails, and wore embellished nail guards on the pinky and ring fingers. Nail guards were popularized by Empress Dowager Cixi (1835– 1908), who was notorious for lavishing herself in luxurious items. The imperial collection holds gold, silver, copper, hawksbill, and jade nail covers with exquisite openwork and gemstone inlays (Palace Museum, Beijing 1986). These nail embellishments were Cixi’s everyday ornaments- she is often photographed with a gold nail cover on her right hand and two jade covers of the same length on her left hand. Her nail covers were densely adorned with floral or auspicious motifs.  

Did you know The Royal Ontario Museum currently has one of Empress Dowager Cixi nail guards on display? Be sure to check it our on your next visit!

In 2013, the nail industry grew to a record $7.47 billion –  The short and tidy manicure of late 20th century has vanquished by the resurgence of elaborate and exquisite nails. Like Empress Dowager Cixi, women today still adorn their fingernails with striking nail art and speciality nail products, for aesthetic functions.  In the celebrity stratosphere, nail art has become the hottest accessory. From Khole Karshasian to Katy Perry, celebs have taken to Instagram to model their lavish, bejewelled designs— none more extravagant than Empress Cixi of course!

The most notable nail trend today is Kawaii style nails. Kawaii, in the context of Japanese popular culture means cute. Kawaii style nails have taken the world by storm; in North American alone this trend has dominated nail salons, with clients requesting bolder styles and designs. These nails encompass all things cute—think bow ties, heart shaped objects, glitter, and pastel shades. Like nail guards, Kawaii nails are densely adorned with floral or auspicious motifs and are more often than not, quite long in length.

It’s quite fascinating to think that women have transformed a practice of five thousand years into a new frontier of wearable art—beyond jewellery and other fashion accessories.  Nails, then and now have adapted over the years to express a plethora of messages but one thing remains the same: women have an entire art gallery at their fingertips.