The word manicure comes from the Latin manus (hand) and cura (care). In ancient times, dramatically long and decorated fingernails were a mark of wealth and status, clearly distinguishing an aristocrat from a laborer. Historical artifacts reveal that the practice of caring for and decorating the fingernails dates back thousands of years. The excavation of one Assyrian tomb uncovered a 5,000-year-old cuticle stick. The ancient Egyptians used henna to stain their nails, and cosmetic kits have been discovered even in the tombs of Egyptian women, who took with them everything they might need in the next world.
Makeup remained in fashion throughout the Renaissance, although the Western ideal for fingernails was a natural look. Women took great pains to have soft, beautiful hands. They slept in gloves made from thin leather, lined with almond paste and oil from sperm whales. During this time, the Eastern habit of dyeing the nails and hands continued. Men and women alike were held to high standards for grooming of the hands during this time.
Predictably, the Victorian era frowned upon makeup. Decorative makeup was the mark of a loose woman, so the style for fingernails was au natural. The end of the 19th century marked the advent of a change in this sentiment, when "nail powders" began to be advertised in Paris. Then, in 1907, liquid nail polish was introduced, the polish lightly tinted with rose dyes. For women who were wary of this new product, solid or powdered nail rouges were available. Nail kits containing files, orange sticks, cuticle implements, and so forth became popular in the first decade of the 20th century. The use of makeup was now becoming acceptable.
Once the acceptability of makeup was established, a myriad of styles abounded in the 20th century. The year 1930 brought the invention of opaque nail polish as we know it today. Blood-red nails quickly became the rage, although the trendsetting Parisian women were soon sporting green, blue, white, and even black nails to match their clothing ensembles and jewels, sometimes even adding shocking decorative touches not unlike the handiwork of modern-day nail artists.
Also in 1930, Harper's Bazaar introduced the idea that fashionable women should match their nail polish and their lipstick. New colors began to flourish in the 1930s, including corals, pinks, and beiges. The 1940s brought yet more naturalistic colors in makeup. In America, Hollywood played a significant role in pushing makeup into the realm of the glamorous. Production of makeup slowed down during World War II as supplies became scarce. But the makeup frenzy exploded in the 1950s when the marketing geniuses at Revlon dictated that colors should change with the season, and women scrambled to get their hands on each new shade as it was introduced. It was also during the 1950s that a dentist in Philadelphia invented sculptured nails, which were quickly embraced and promoted by celebrities such as Cher and Tina Sinatra. Long, fashionable nails were now within the reach of all women.
Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra inspired the dramatic, dark-eyed look of the early 1960s, and the eyes continued to dominate the makeup scene into the 1970s, while lips and nails faded into the background. However, by 1972, wild nail colors were once again in full swing, and Revlon introduced a line called "Lady in the Dark," whose 24 shades included variations of green, purple, blue, and black. Of course, with the concurrent advent of the back-to-nature movement in the 1970s, not every woman rushed out to buy the latest shade. A truly natural approach to self-care was also developing, which has been largely synthesized into the concepts and products of the last two decades.
Today, both decorative and natural makeup styles have an established place, and there are fingernail products and styles to suit everyone. While many nail products (including artificial nail kits) continue to be widely available at the retail level, more and more women—and men—are seeking out the services of professional nail technicians.
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