How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World

BY Sabrina Louis

via @badgalriri/Instagram


Microtrends come and go, but some persist throughout pop culture for far longer. Over the last few decades, various new art forms have entered the mainstream and segued into the next. While trends are fleeting, nail art has proven its enduring popularity.

This feature is a part of Origins, a new series from Trippin and All Corners, uncovering the forgotten roots of today's pop culture trends.

Today’s nail art trends are not limited, with 3D nails being the latest evolution that’s gained popularity around the globe for its “whole new way to tell visual stories”, as well as water droplets to chrome and pierced nails. Celebrities have been showing off their innovative claws on the runway and across the scene. Megan Thee Stallion has been seen sporting snake skin jelly nails by artist Coca Michelle at the 2023 MTV Music Awards; there’s Lizzo’s go-to 3D manicures and Billie Eilish opting for the grunge aesthetic with heavy diamante and neon looks.

How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World
via @lizzobeeating/instagram
How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World
How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World
via @theestallion/instagram

Nail art has become a token of creative empowerment and femininity. However, where did the culture of bedazzling nails come from and how did it become ingrained in the everyday?

Nail art has, in fact, been around for centuries, and it’s been a powerful tool through which women have created their own definitions of femininity. For many cultures around the world nail art has held a deep cultural significance; from its rise in popularity in Latin American regions, who take pride in their beauty standards and view vibrant nails as ‘a reflection of [their] heritage’, and the influence from Japanese culture bringing ‘kawaii’ nails into the scene in the 90s and birthing textured and 3D nails through the Harajuku fashion movement, to its initial popularity rooting from the Black community. For Black women, “nails sit at a unique crossroads of race, gender, class, and immigration”, Simedar Jackson explains in her TZR article. In spite of the negative controversy, cultures around the world have elevated the art form through different heritage-influenced styles.

Ancient Egypt

The origins of decorated nails can be traced as far back as 3000 BC in ancient Egypt. Before nail varnish, herbal potions were used to polish the nail and henna was used to decorate both the nails and hands. The richer the colour and embellishments, the higher an individual’s social status. Red painted nails signified wealth, while “lower ranking” women were only permitted to wear pale, pastel shades. Symbolically, red nails represented lifeblood and power; therefore, Egyptian queens like Nefertiti and Cleopatra would paint their nails a deep red as a symbol of their royal status, fertility and sexual appeal. This symbol was incorporated into the mummification process of pharaohs too, who received henna manicures to increase their chances of entering the afterlife with all their strength.

How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World
via @bluelotushenna/instagram

The Qing Dynasty in China

Long nails have always been a sign of luxury and wealth. In China, during the Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1911, noble men and women grew their nails to show they did not have to work or use their hands for manual labour; it showed others that they had servants to feed and dress them. This led to the invention of the earliest recorded artificial nail guard, known as ‘hu zhi’, by Emperor Kangx. Finger covers were made from metals, shells or jade and decorated in precious stones. These covers measured up to six inches in length.

How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World

Florence Griffith Joyner and America’s Obsession With Her Nails

Along the way, nail art became a trend that was “repackaged in whiteness”, as declared by former Vogue editor Funmi Fetto in her article for The Guardian. In the 70s and 80s, nail art took on a new lease of life after being co-opted by Black communities.

Athlete Florence ‘Flo Jo’ Griffith Joyner holds the record as the fastest woman in the world, but her achievements were overshadowed by the media’s criticism around her signature nails. These were long and jewelled; described as “dragon-lady fingers” and sneered at by the white middle-class community and media. Joyner’s nails were a symbol of empowerment and ferocity on the track, intimidating her competitors. In an essay written by Lynchburg College Sport Management Professor Lindsay Pieper, she wrote that Joyner was “treated as an Olympic abnormality, through subtle signifiers of racial difference”. Pieper noted that “the reinforcement of Blackness as the cultural ‘other’ was fostered through the mediation of Griffith Joyner’s nails and clothing choices”. Even after Joyner’s death, her legacy continued on via the popularisation of nail culture within hip-hop.

Enduring Popularity in American Hip-Hop Culture

The 70s to 90s saw hip-hop icons define their own forms of self-expression and beauty ideals through nail culture. Icons like Janet Jackson and Missy Elliot sported elaborate nail art, and Lil Kim wore money-inspired nails in her 1996 video for Get Money. Lil Kim’s nail artist, Bernadette Thompson, received an award at the MoMa in 2017 for her designs – a recognition of nail art’s significance in hip-hop culture.

How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World
Lil Kim's nails

Cultural Erasure in America

Modern day influencers have been accredited as the creators of certain nail trends; there’s Hailey Bieber’s and Kylie Jenner’s ‘inspired’ airbrushed nails, for example, or Kim Kardashian’s ‘trend-setting’ pierced nails, which had first been worn by Janet Jackson in Busta Rhymes’ music video What’s it Gonna Be?! in 1998. Therefore overshadowing trends that Black women have been wearing for decades.

Long elaborately designed nails were faced with criticism, as founder of Finesse Your Claws, Melissa Samuel, explains: “When it’s on a Black woman, it’s seen as ghetto. Now, when it’s on [someone else] it’s trending and high fashion.” Writer Asia Milia Mare highlighted in Scratch Magazine that for anyone outside of the Black community, this “white-washing of a nail style that gained momentum from women of colour, shows how easily Black women are erased from the narrative.”

How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World
via @iamcardib/instagram
How Nail Art Became a Symbol of Female Empowerment Across the World
via @badgalriri/instagram

In an interview with Cosmopolitan, Tyra A. Seals, one of the founders of BlkGirlNailfies, explains how they’ve tried to build a community that celebrates hip-hop’s influence on nail culture and its roots in the Black community, through “specific posts that pay homage to Black women like Patti LaBelle, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliot. These are women “who kept their nails done to remind followers and the larger community that Black women have been at the centre of the nail conversation for decades.”

The cultural resurgence of nail embellishments has now contributed over £30bn to just the UK’s economy alone, making it a modern and powerful fashion trend.

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