When it comes to nail art, the world is at your fingertips—literally. From patterns and designs to gems and chains, nails have become just as much of an accessory as any other piece in your wardrobe. These tiny canvases can take any look from drab to fab, but the evolution of modern nail art has overlooked some of its original trendsetters.
According to Richard Corson, author of “Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times,” the earliest form of nail decoration dates back to about 3200 BCE in Babylonia, where warriors got their nails painted before battle. Fast forward to the mid-20th century: nail salons began to be commonplace and brands like Cutex and Revlon led the pack in marketing nail care products. According to “Decades of Beauty: The Changing Image of Women 1890s-1990s,” approximately 86% of women were using nail products by 1939. Now jump to 2020, where social media shares the work of nail artists and you can get just about anything imaginable on your fingertips.
Eccentric nail art has become an expressive outlet in mainstream media—celebrities like the Kardashians, Iggy Azalea, Dua Lipa and Gigi Hadid often garner millions of likes on posts of their latest nail designs. But white-passing influencers often get praise for styles that Black women pioneered—and were criticized over. Black women have worn bold nail styles for decades—from Donyae Coles in the 60s to Diana Ross in the 70s to Missy Elliott in the 90s. But, there’s a long existent double standard. On Black women, some of these looks have been considered “ghetto,” while the same style on a white-passing person is “trendy.”
At the 1988 Olympics, Florence Griffith-Joyner (“Flo Jo”) broke the 100-meter and 200-meter dash records, which still stand today. But her manicure—a long set of red, white and blue nails—seemed to make more headlines than her medals. “Writers highlighted Flo Jo’s fingernails as both a source of intrigue and revulsion, subtly emphasizing racial differences. Because she preferred long, colorful nails, the runner was depicted as abnormal, deviant and different.” wrote Lynchburg College Sport Management Professor Lindsay Pieper in 2015. More than 30 years later, the nails Flo Jo was criticized for are being requested in salons everywhere. Even Black women like Serena Williams are still criticized for their manicures. Williams’ nails have been called “outrageous” and “rule breaking,” while Kim Kardashian is taking her nails “to the next level,” according to Elle Magazine in 2017.
To Kayla Crews, the lack of proper credit for those who started these trends is a prevalent issue. “It’s frustrating that the same things that are ‘trendy’ or ‘the next big thing’ are the same things Black people have been discriminated against for generations,” Crews said. Some nail gurus, however, do give credit where it is due. Mei Kawajiri, a nail artist with over 230,000 Instagram followers, did a Flo Jo inspired manicure at Alexander Wang’s spring 2019 campaign. The models’ nails were bedazzled and painted the colors of the American flag. Kawajiri called them “Flo Jo Nails” and paid tribute in an Instagram photo caption.
One reason Black women may not be getting the credit they deserve for launching the modern day manicure is that they make up a very small segment of licensed nail professionals. According to a study by the UCLA Labor Center, only 2% of United States nail salon workers are Black. But this should not diminish their contributions to the industry. According to Crew, supporting Black nail artists and Black-owned beauty brands is one way to begin changing this perspective. Crews said that hair stylist @hon3y.hair, makeup artist @facedbycleo and nail artist @keenailedit_ are her go-to Black-owned beauty businesses.
The next time you paint your nails or get them professionally done, pause to understand and appreciate the cultural significance and origin behind your new manicure.
words_keagan larkins. photo_tiana torkan. design_giovanni aprigliano & jess morgan.
This article was published in Distraction’s fall 2020 print issue.