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Definitive : Nailing Down Origins of Manicure

April 16, 1993|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Usually about twice a month, millions of women crowd into manicure shops to have their nails "done," and even more take a brush and do their own. The manicure has become an egalitarian experience. In a typical shop, you might see a powerful executive sitting next to a retired blue-collar worker, but it hasn't always been like that.

For centuries, the people who manicured and painted their nails were nobility--and it wasn't just women.

By 3000 BC, Egyptians were using extracts from the henna plant to color their hair and stain their nails, and the Chinese were combining gum arabic, egg white, gelatin and beeswax to create natural varnishes, lacquers and enamels for the royal manicures.

Having your nails painted red or black once meant that you didn't have to do manual labor.

In Egypt, peasants always monitored the color worn by royalty; if they painted their nails the same color as Nefertiti, Egypt's queen in 14th Century BC, they could have their hands cut off and be thrown in the Nile. The queen liked ruby red paint, and commanded her ladies-in-waiting to wear nothing darker than pink. Egypt's Queen Cleopatra's color choice in 40 BC was a deep rust red.

The military took its cue from royalty, and Roman commanders had their nails painted before going into battle.

Shades of red continued to be used through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But years later, during the reign of Queen Victoria, painted nails became a symbol of the tainted woman.

Nail polish took on a racy image until Hollywood's early stars painted their finger nails and women of good repute began to copy them.

While red is still popular today, women increasingly favor a more natural look, such as the French manicure, a transparent form of polish that didn't come from France. The clean look is favored by about half of the women in the world who have manicures, according to the Nail Institute in Chicago.

And while Chinese and Egyptian kings never failed to get a weekly manicure, today men make up less than 1% of a nail shop's customers, reports the Nail Institute.

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