In the early ‘90s, Tisa Durham was a kid on the West Side of Chicago, and she remembers tagging along with her aunt down to a small Black-owned jewelry shop one day. Durham’s aunt—who Durham paints as an absolute nail trendsetter—purchased 24-karat solid gold nail plates, which she took to her nail salon and had put on as the ultimate in adornment. A trendsetter, no doubt.
Experiences like these sparked Durham’s passion for nails, and by the time she was 14, she herself was rocking the extra-long acrylics with spirals, jewels and any kind of adornment she could get her hands on; plus, she was doing nails for her friends and family. This was art—a form of self-expression—that Durham fondly recalls as something she’s been around for as long as she can remember.
Durham now owns her own highly successful nail salon in the Chicago suburbs called Glitter Nail Salon—plus a certified Continuing Education training school called Glitter Nail Academy—and uses the inspiration she took from her aunt and the other ladies she used to watch at the local nail salon to create and teach.
Today, platforms like Instagram and TikTok are flooded with amazing, intricate nail design creations like the ones Durham described, making them more mainstream than ever. And, as Durham puts it: “Now the whole world is able to see this stuff, not just my section of the world.”
For a look into how we got here—and a glimpse into just how much the nail industry has changed in the last five decades—read on.
How it started
To understand where we are, it’s helpful to know where it all began.
Nail adornment can be traced back to the 18th century, according to Suzanne Shapiro’s book “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure.” Ancient Egyptian and Asian cultures used rose-colored nails—dyed with henna or crushed flowers—as a status symbol. Long nails were also associated with nobles in Chinese society, who would wear stiletto-shaped nail guards in a pair, adorned with precious metals and stones, for symbols of good luck and to signal their high status.
These “exotic” practices intrigued women of the rising European merchant class, and, as Shapiro explains, were “a fashionable way for women to welcome worldly culture and sensuality into their lives.”
The modern manicure as a service that we know today was created in the 19th century by a foot doctor named Dr. Sitts, who helped cure a hangnail on King Louis Philippe of France by cleaning and pushing back the cuticles with his custom-made tools. Dr. Sitts’ niece took over the practice in the 1890s and is thought to have taught the first significant wave of manicurists.
According to Shapiro, the first American nail salon—then called a manicure parlor—opened its doors in 1878 in New York City, ushering in the more mainstream outlook on manicuring that developed in the early 1900s.
As reported by NAILS magazine, the first rendition of the acrylic nail was invented in 1957 when a dentist, Dr. Fred Slack, cut his nail while working in his lab. Using aluminum foil, he created a platform to fix the nail with dental acrylic, which would lead to the patent of the industry’s first nail form.
Other notable recent milestones include:
- The invention of the French manicure in the late 1970s by Jeff Pink, founder and president of Orly, who created the look as a way to save time on repainting nails multiple times per day on sets of movies and TV shows;
- The openings of two major nail brands—CND, founded by Dr. Stuart Nordstrom in 1979, and OPI founded by George Schaeffer in 1981;
- And technological advancements like gel polish and CND’s Shellac, which launched in 2010.
Another transformative force on the American nail industry are the generations of Vietnamese that have honed the craft. According to Adele Pham’s documentary “NailedIt: Vietnamese & the Nail Industry,” a whopping 50 percent of nail salons in the United States are owned by Vietnamese immigrants, and an even higher portion of workers in nail salons—79% according to a study by the UCLA Labor Center— are foreign-born, mostly Vietnamese.
This dominance can all be traced back to a meeting in 1975 between actress Tippi Hedren and a group of 20 Vietnamese women, as Kimberly Pham reported for NAILS magazine back in 2015.
Beyond Hedren’s acting career—her most famous role being in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie “The Birds”—she’s also a humanitarian, and she volunteered during the Vietnam War to help refugees. She worked with a charitable organization called Food for the Hungry to transport a group of refugees from Camp Pendleton in San Diego to Weimar Hope Village, a refugee camp set up at an abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium outside of Sacramento, CA. Hedren helped organize sewing and typing classes so the women could learn a trade, but not everyone was interested. That’s when manicuring became an option.
Hedren’s personal manicurist, Dusty Coots, flew in from Los Angeles weekly to teach the women at the refugee camp proper nail procedures, and the basics of manicuring. After these lessons with Coots, the women were taken to Citrus Beauty School in Sacramento, CA, where Hedren tried convincing the school to allow the women to enter a nails-only program, something that was uncommon at the time. Initially the school was resistant, but finally relented.
The women passed the state board exam in English, received their nail licenses, and went their separate ways, finding jobs at salons, opening their own salons, and telling their family and friends about it. The nail industry has become a family business, and continues to be a way for Vietnamese families to achieve their own American Dream.
Guided by Black women
Along the way, the influence that Black culture—particularly Black women—had on the evolution of the artistry of nails cannot be ignored. They’re the true pioneers of the incredibly intricate, creative and show-stopping nail looks that we see on celebrities like Kylie Jenner today, but they’re not given this recognition. Oftentimes, it’s blatant cultural appropriation.
Dating back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, short pink or nude nails were the norm among middle-class white women, and Black women experimented with color, length and adornment as a way of self-expression. Known as the first Black supermodel, Donyale Luna sported acrylics on the cover of Twen magazine in 1966, and in the disco era of the ‘70s, singers like Donna Summer and Diana Ross showed off long acrylics in bright red and reflective metallics.
Then came Flo-Jo—Florence Griffith-Joyner—track star and Olympic medalist (and NAILS magazine cover star in 1993) whose acrylic nails garnered almost as much attention as her record-breaking speed. During the 1988 games, Griffith-Joyner—who was a nail tech herself—sported a custom red, white, blue and gold set, and reporters’ focus on her fingers indicated to Lindsay Pieper, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College, that of normalized whiteness.
“Oftentimes, the art on her fingers outshone the medals around her neck,” Pieper writes in her 2015 paper titled “Star-Spangled Fingernails: Florence Griffith-Joyner and the Mediation of Black Femininity.”
“The constant reporting of Flo-Jo’s nails provides an interesting cultural moment where race and gender intersect,” she continues. “Although Griffith-Joyner presented conventional femininity through the maintenance of her appearance, she did so in a way that explicitly expressed Blackness. Nails are not only a reflection of individual aesthetic choice, but also an important vehicle that illustrates race and gender. In other words, regardless of intention, French manicures and pastel colors signal white, middle-class, heteronormative beauty. Long, sculptured, airbrushed nails, on the other hand, are markers of Blackness, sexually deviancy, and marginalized femininity. 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.”
As Flo-Jo’s nails were in the spotlight, so, too, were hip hop artists’ like Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim in the 1990s. They donned acrylics with hand painted designs, piercings, bling and more; many of the looks going viral on social media today take inspiration from this era.
How it’s going
As the industry has evolved, it’s taken nail professionals from backstage to a starring role.
“When I first started in 2004, I would work in a hair and nail salon, and it was exactly that—hair came first, and nails were in the background,” says Robert Nguyen, nail tech, former salon owner and founder/owner of Gotti Nails. “There would be about 10 hairstylists and I was one of two nail techs. Back then, clients didn’t even know about nail art and wanted just the basic single color.”
Jan Arnold, co-founder and Style Director of CND, remembers the same thing when she started in the business in the 1980s. Arnold, whose father Dr. Stuart Nordstrom started the company she now runs, is often credited with helping to elevate the perception of nails.
In 1996, after looking at runway shows and magazines and realizing the models’ nails were bare, Arnold decided it was CND’s mission to make nails what she calls “a true fashion accessory.”
“Cynthia Rowley was our first collaboration,” she fondly recalls. “I called her and said ‘we want to do the nails for your show,’ and she said ‘why?’ And I said ‘because it’s 20 digits that can contribute to the story you’re telling. Not just nail color, but nail shape and adornment as well.”
Other early notable collaborations for CND include Betsey Johnson—”her dresses were girly and frilly,” Arnold says, “and when we added a pointy red nail the story then became naughty and nice”—and even with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton.
“Marc was very into nails,” Arnold says. “He always used to say, ‘When a woman is holding a handbag on her arm and it’s curled up, what’s noticeable? Her nails.’”
CND co-founder and Style Director Jan Arnold
Seeing nail artists rubbing elbows with Jacobs or Rowley, contributing to the exciting and beautiful fashion moments in history, made it more acceptable for everyday women to wear beautiful nails. And more desirable.
In the spotlight
While fashion runways have made—and continue to make—an impact on the perception of nails, so does celebrity. And if any nail professional knows the impact that celebrity can have, it’s Jenny Bui, owner of two nail salons in New York City and her own Jenny Secret Collection of products. Her Instagram tagline—“Cardi B’s Nail Tech”—carries with it instant desirability.
Bui started doing Cardi B’s nails before she was a superstar, and with Cardi’s rise of fame, Bui came along.
“She’s like a daughter to me, so we built that relationship,” Bui says. “Then when people saw Cardi B get big and knew that I did her nails, they saw me as a celebrity artist and more celebrities started coming to me.”
Bui also used social media to help propel her career.
“Before social media, I was just working like a regular worker. After I made an Instagram account and people saw my work, they would come to me specifically for bling. Social media helped my business a lot because people see how unique my art is and want to come for themselves.”
Social media can be as effective as celebrity in propelling nail professionals to success. On these platforms, they can showcase their artistry to people across the world, helping to elevate the conversation.
“Being able to show off these skills on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms allows the public to witness the work and creativity that truly goes into creating a nail look,” says OPI Co-Founder and Brand Ambassador Suzi Weiss-Fischmann. “Now, I think people can see how much artistry, time and talent it takes to create a beautiful manicure.”
As many nail professionals remember, there was a time not that long ago when the standard full set would only set a client back $25. Convenience replaced artistry in some respects, and getting the service done fast was the ultimate goal. But the pendulum has swung back the other way.
“Here we are with social media, and the awareness is at another level,” Durham says. “Social media has introduced people to things they didn’t know they wanted. Nail artists are now being bold about how long it takes to do this stuff, and how much it costs. The expectation with clients is different now.”
The pandemic hit the beauty service industry especially hard, shuttering salons and shops and forcing nail professionals to pivot quickly, finding new ways to stay afloat and engaged with their clients. During the shutdown, nail professionals focused on education and social media, digging deep into the community and making the most out of a less-than-ideal situation.
And one thing the shutdown made clear is that nail services are important to people—maybe even more than professionals realized.
“People were doing their nails at home and I think this is so important to note, because it illustrates that no one wanted to sacrifice getting their nails done,” says Weiss-Fischmann. “People stopped cutting and coloring their hair, skipped makeup, but everyone was DIYing their nails. During the height of the pandemic, there were many things we couldn’t change, but one thing we could change was our nail color.”
And the other thing that the pandemic taught the public is that the actual experience of visiting a salon cannot easily be replicated at home. The feeling of being pampered, of taking out some time for self-care, is more important today than ever.
“Getting a manicure or pedicure is an intimate experience, one of relaxation, physical touch and personal attention,” Weiss-Fischmann says. “I’ve often thought of it as its own form of psychoanalysis that will leave you feeling rejuvenated.”
And now that we’re looking out of the other end of the proverbial pandemic tunnel, one thing’s for sure—nail professionals’ work and talent is more valued than ever.
“I find that sometimes nail techs have low self-esteem,” Arnold says. “They say ‘oh, I just do nails.’ But now, the mentality has shifted because of the demand for their services and the popularity, especially on social media. Now, it’s ‘I do nails’ and they’re proud of that.”
Those outside the industry—or those who have just joined—may not understand how multifaceted today’s nail business truly is. What most see is the salon table and chair, but nail professionals can hold a wide array of positions within the business as it continues to evolve.
“One of the things I love about the industry is its versatility,” says Nguyen, who himself has held various roles in different facets of the industry, taking his former experience to inform the next. “You can be a nail tech, nail artist, salon owner, educator, editorial artist, R&D consultant, a color specialist. I’ve loved every bit of my time in the nail industry because of this.”
Sreynin Peng, celebrity nail artist with more than 20 years of experience, echoes this sentiment, saying that it was her “amazing” beauty school teacher who reminded her that before she officially entered the industry, she had to decide where she wanted to belong in it. Peng, who has done a bit of everything—as a nail tech, educator and R&D consultant—says that once you find your placement, "master it,” and never forget to follow technology because it’s what will make your path stronger.
And yes, while technology has transformed the nail industry, and will continue to push its boundaries—recent advances have yielded CND’s PLEXIGEL 3+ week system, plus OPI’s Velvet Vision gel effect—one thing that hasn’t changed is the care and attention nail professionals give to their clients.
“Doing nails gives me peace and a sense of purpose at the end of day,” says Peng. “Touch is a form of love and care. Most of my clients new and old are spending hours with me and when hands touch, we begin to feel what they feel. With every service and every conversation we each learn just a little more about each other.”
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