Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

As has been proven over the course of the last few posts, being fashionable and well groomed is not by any means a modern invention.  But there are some things that many of us, particularly women, rarely take time to wonder about these days that have come on to the beauty scene relatively recently.  Only a short 80 years ago lipstick in a tube was a racy new invention and mascara came in a cake with a little toothbrush-like tool to apply it.  And then there was nail polish…

Well manicured nails have been a luxurious beauty standard for decades.  Up until the 1920s, however, women were taking care of their nails in much the same way that their great-grandmothers might have.  The nails were brushed or rubbed with oil which was slightly tinted in a blush color and often scented of rose.  The application usually occurred before bedtime and throughout the next day, when the lady had a moment, the nails would be polished with a chamois buffer to create a subtle sheen.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

This was a time consuming process that didn’t suit most women’s daily lives.  Trimming and filing nails, usually to an oval shape, was about as far as the average woman could be expected to go.  But then two technologies changed the future of nail care.  The first, perhaps surprisingly, was the automobile industry.

As Sarah Jane Downing notes in Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950:

New technology from the automobile industry revolutionized the manicure, and fingertips sparkled with precision gloss.

The varnish used to paint cars was reworked and converted into long-wearing nail polish.  Initially women bought and wore pink or clear tones, reminiscent of the buffed nails they were familiar with.  That changed too with the fashion influence of a second technology: the movies.  Downing continues:

Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong grew their nails long and wore the half-moon manicure in scarlet, the tips and half-moons of the nails left unpainted.

This type of manicure, which has unfortunately been out of favor since 1940, is actually both more economical and better for the natural nails.  With the half-moons at the cuticle left unencumbered by polish, the nails can “breathe” and not extending polish all the way to the tips of the nails deters chipping.  The 1930s rage for oval or even pointy fingernails was also, to my mind, a lot more flattering to most hands than the shovel-shaped nails of today’s squared-off manicure.

By the ‘30s almost anything went as far as nail polish colors.  Reds, corals and pinks were seen regularly as were blue, green and even black, the last made popular not by a movie star but by New York socialite Barbara Hutton.   With the coming of World War II, colors became more about what one could get rather than what was fashionable.  Even Hollywood stuck largely to coral or pink until red returned in the prosperous ‘50s.

For more on decade specific manicures, nail and makeup colors, click over to this wonderful post at Snoodlebug.  A votre sant√© ~

Header: Anna May Wong via Lucy Who


Timmy! said...

Interesting post and link, Pauline. I agree that the vintage style pointy nails are more flattering, but I guess this is really more about fashion than function and what do I know about fashion?

Pauline said...

But fashion should be, at its heart, about function because not everyone is a Kardashian (ie: useless money-sucking machine). The nicely filed oval nails my grandmother had were a lot more functional - and prettier - than those peasanty shovel-claws. Just sayin'...