Manicures may seem like an afterthought in the grand scale of human adornment, but they have a surprisingly long history. Mankind has been adorning its nails in some way and form as far back as 3500 BC. It was the men who started first. In ancient Babylonia, men purportedly used kohl to stain their nails. There was even a class system — the upper echelons of society wore black kohl, while the lower classes wore green. Egyptian queens like Cleopatra and Nefertiti were known for their pioneering beauty routines. But beyond their milk and honey baths, the two were very much into their nail care as well, staining their nails with henna to achieve red or ruby shades, and rubbing oil into their hands to soften the skin. Call it the world’s first modern manicure.
In the ’80s, my mother had nails that were more accurately described as talons. They were long, and often painted a shade of scarlet that was meant to be noticed. I didn’t put much thought as to how she managed to perform chores or even button her jeans, but long, oval-shaped nails were the fashion of the time, and like many other women, she went with the flow. So did Florence Griffith-Joyner, an Olympic runner, whose extraordinarily long squoval (square-oval) nails gained as many headlines as the running times she’d clocked. The media seemed fascinated at her ability to run (and train) with her almost claw-like talons. There was a certain sense of defiance that came with these impractical nails, worn almost like a badge of feminine power.
For a long time, in the 1990s through to the 2000s, nails took an almost pared-back, modest aesthetic — with many women outside of music videos preferring their nails not extend beyond their fingertips. For a while, the French manicure — a stylised approximation of natural nails, complete with a painted, white tip, reigned supreme, though it has since fallen out of fashion. Today, the trend for simple, single-colour manicures and negative space art holds enduring favour.
Audrey Wee, the co-founder of I Love Nails, a nail salon in Singapore, gets many clients requests for simple designs. “Minimalist designs are in trend now. The simple straight lines, shapes and the use of negative space make them easier to wear and suitable for most nail length and shapes,” she says. In fact, women are no longer asking for the garish, 3D nail art of the past, as well as the sometimes gaudy, diamante embellishments that dominated for a short time. “I find it interesting how 3D acrylic nail art, intricate styles and diamantes are becoming a dying trend and simpler, minimalist designs are becoming more and more popular. Gone are the days where clients came in for a full set of dramatic, 3D floral designs. Most clients now ask for a single-coloured set with an accent nail colour or design,” says Wee.
But as of late, the women who are down for experimentation are growing out their nails and asking for sharper shapes. “Stilettos or oval shapes are quite popular among clients with a longer nail bed,” says Wee. So named because they resemble the shape of a stiletto heel, these are cut on the sides and filed to a sharp point. Seen on celebrities like Rihanna and Cardi B, what they lack in practicality, they make up for in pizzazz. These nails are a whole look in itself, as one requires strong nails to begin with and dedication to care for them. Those who lack the requisite length or who have brittle nails, can opt for acrylic nails or extensions to create that exaggerated point. Longer nails may not be the easiest to keep up, but they certainly telegraph a sense of power and allure — and an intriguing disregard for the banality of smartphones and keyboards.
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