Deeds Magazine - Beyond Trends: Unveiling the Cultural Legacy of Acrylic Nails (2024)

As Black History Month draws to a close, it seems a fitting moment to delve beyond the surface of fashion trends and explore the narratives embedded within. After all, it is by acknowledging history that we unravel layers of cultural significance and identity. Acrylic nails carry a profound legacy; it is crucial, then, to acknowledge and appreciate their cultural significance, especially within the black community. By placing acrylic nails within their historical context, we hope to honor their origins and cultivate a deeper understanding of the intersections between fashion, culture, and identity.

Acrylic nails were originally a luxury reserved for the elite. Crafted from porcelain and made to measure, they served as a status symbol when they were first introduced in the 1930s. Short but well-manicured nails indicated that someone did not have to do manual labor. It was not until World War II, following the advancements made in the field of petroleum products, that acrylics as we know them today came into being and incidentally became more accessible — the discovery of acrylic resins also facilitated the development of gel, offering greater versatility when shaping the nail. The 1950s then witnessed a dynamic change in nail fashion, heavily influenced by Hollywood starlets and perfectly-manicured actresses such as Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe, with a preference for round, crimson-red fingernails.

For all that, acrylic nails have long held significance within the black community. The first black supermodel and woman of color to ever grace the cover of Vogue, Donyale Luna, memorably wore acrylics on the March 1966 cover of the magazine, breaking barriers in an era when the industry was predominantly (if not exclusively) white. Photographed by renowned fashion photographer David Bailey, Luna strikes the pose with pearly almond-shaped fingernails, forming a “V” for Vogue. Throughout the magazine spread, she continues to flaunting her acrylics, posing in various dresses by Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.

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Acrylic nails would later be associated with the black disco icons of the 1970s. Disco emerged at a time when racial tensions in the United States were at an all-time high, and for marginalized communities, disco culture offered a space where people, regardless of their race or social background, could come together to enjoy music and dance. Singers like Diana Ross and Donna Summer, who often sported square-tipped nails, most often in neutral colors like silver or red, became symbols of success and representation, inspiring pride among black youth.

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Moving into the 1980s, black American athlete Florence Griffith-Joyner, aka “Flo Jo,” captured attention for her unparalleled performances, but also her distinctive extra-extra-long nails. Throughout her illustrious career, she sported remarkably long acrylic nail designs, both on the track and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1988, wearing a red, white, and black polka-dot manicure set alongside fellow track and field athlete Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee. The very same year, she set two world records at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, sporting similar bejeweled nails in the colors of the U.S. flag.

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By February 1987, NAILS magazine already signaled a new era: it featured long, purple-brown airbrushed nails on its cover, which would normally showcase French tips or traditional single-color sets. This cover coincided with the rise of female singers such as Grace Jones, LaToya Jackson, and later co*ko from R&B group SWV, who embraced vibrant nails into their personal styles.

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Note that, during this time period, the influx of Asian immigrants to the United States played a significant role in shaping the nail industry. As newcomers were being excluded from most employment opportunities, they began to set up their own businesses, including nail salons. As a result, nail services became more affordable for underprivileged communities. Stylish and relatively inexpensive, manicure sets became attractive alternatives to high-cost clothing, and POC women, historically left out from the beauty industry, found newfound opportunities for inclusion in this field.

In the 1990s, the popularity of elaborate nails increased further with the rise of hip-hop culture, notably through chart-topping artists like Missy Elliott, Janet Jackson, and Lil Kim, whose bold fashion choices extended to their nail designs — the futuristic music video for “What’s it Gonna Be?!,” in which Janet Jackson wears hoop-pierced acrylics, is a must watch. Lil Kim, in particular, gained notoriety for her iconic “Money Manicure.” Created by black nail artist Bernadette Thompson for the rapper’s “Get Money” music video, the manicure set incorporates images of $100 bills, dollar-green rhinestones, and golden spikes. Its significance was further solidified when it was showcased at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in 2018 as part of the “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” exhibition, dedicated to fashion pieces that have significantly influenced pop culture.

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Acrylics are now considered a form of artistic expression, with some of them even reaching the status of museum-worthy art pieces. Because they have been brought to the mainstream, they have also entered the realm of high fashion. Consider, for instance, Andreas Kronthaler’s Spring 2023 Ready-to-Wear collection for Vivienne Westwood, which had the models combine mesh tops with carelessly laced corsets, regency-inspired boots with 80s power jackets and claw-like acrylic nails. Similarly, Rochas’ Spring 2023 Ready-To-Wear collection featured oversized silhouettes, such as ruffled dresses and color-blocking capes, all of which complemented by elongated nails.

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The evolution of acrylic nails encapsulates a complex and history-rich narrative. If the fashion world has embraced creative nail designs, their significance within black culture must not be overlooked. And although POC women have played a decisive role in this cultural wave, they continue to face unwarranted criticism when wearing acrylic nails, risking being labeled as “unprofessional,” “vulgar,” or “cheap.” American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, for example, came under extreme scrutiny in 2021 when critics used her choice to wear acrylics as evidence of her rule-defying marijuana use, which led to her Olympic ineligibility. The contrasting treatment of celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Hailey Bieber, or Billie Eilish, who tend to be praised for adopting similar nail styles, further highlights the double standards at play. By acknowledging the contributions of black women, hopefully we can take a step towards dismantling prejudice and start fostering a more inclusive future in fashion.

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Deeds Magazine - Beyond Trends: Unveiling the Cultural Legacy of Acrylic Nails (2024)
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