Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Nailed it! Vintage manicures - history and a little bit of technique

So, as some of you will have seen, I recently posted a picture of a vintage manicure as done by the wonderful Kay at The Chapel.  I decided to have my nails done as a treat and also in an attempt to spur me on into taking more care of my talons, as I do tend to neglect them and I'd like to look more polished...pardon the pun.  Anyway, I think they turned out great!

It has traditionally been pretty difficult to get a good vintage manicure at a salon, as the modern (and in my honest opinion, ugly) trend for squared off nails has meant that most manicurists look at you with bafflement when you request almond or, heaven forbid, pointy nails!  Personally I aspire to razor sharp talons a la Joan Crawford!

Thankfully though, following the popularisation of the vintage manicure (otherwise known as the moonicure, half moon manicure or reverse French manicure) by celebrities such as the impeccably groomed Dita von Teese, it is now becoming much easier to get the vintage nails you want from a salon. 
So, lets have a little look at this history of nail prettification.

A brief history of nail decoration:

It seems that, as with most things, those wonderful Ancient Egyptians invented nail art; using henna in various shades to denote social standing; the darker and redder your talons the higher your caste, it is surmised.  It seems nail colour was also an indicator of social standing in China (around 600BC) with silver and gold nails being used to denote Royalty.  I cannot imagine how this was done - gold leaf perhaps?

While different methods of keeping the nails tidy were used throughout history it wasn’t really until the 1900’s that we started taking our manicuring seriously – the early part of the century apparently saw both the invention of the emery board and cuticle remover, with nails being polished with either cake, paste or powder formulations and a chamois leather to add shine and a little rosy colour.

However, the real invention of nail varnish, as we would recognise it now, came with the start of the automobile age.  The product was based on car paint! It didn’t take off however, it was seen as something tacky and  there was a strong belief that people who used it were trying to hide something - for example dirty fingernails from manual work.

Following serious promotion in salons, magazines and on the cinema screen in the 30's, this look finally started to filter down from Hollywood into everyday use, and after Revlon released the first easily available nail paint into salons and department stores across America in 1932  it wasn't long until many other cosmetics companies such as Cutex had followed suit.

Magazines held wonderful ads for these innovative products showing the wide range of colours available  – there were far more options than just red, though of course that is the vintage classic.

In fact, by the end of the 30’s a landmark film for us vintage girls showed just how important the manicure and the beauty salon had become, at least to society women.  The Women (1939) centres around salon gossip – where a woman discovers her husbands infidelity whilst having a manicure with the latest colour “Jungle Red.”

By the 1940’s it became fairly commonplace to paint the nails and nail polish was used to give a bit of much longed for glamour to our wartime sisters.

So, here endeth the history lesson – now for a little on style and colour.

Styles and colours:  
most info blatantly gleaned from Return2Style (links included below) - the site is so fabulous that there is no point me reinventing the wheel, so to speak!

Long and pointy in shape, as in the pic of Joan Crawford, above.  The moons and a sliver of the tip kept clear of polish.
Colours - red, black, silver, gold, emerald green, coral
Pictures and more info at Return2Style

40s:Nails not as long and the point slightly less vicious looking, more almond in shape.  Similar polish style with moons kept free, polish more likely to go to tips with some ladies painting the whole nail (less likely for manual workers who risked their polish chipping more easily)
Colours - every red you can imagine, navy, dark green, plum,
 Pictures and more info at Return2Style


50s:Nails more almond to oval in shape - the entire nail being painted.  
Colours - More pinks, corals and pastels with pearl finish polishes beginning to appear.

My polish recommendations:

Barry M - a great bright red, a beautiful navy, a very rich black and a very 30's looking grey can all be found at Barry M.  In my experience (and the recommendation of my manicurist) the Barry M range is the best budget range out there.  Applied properly it really doesn't chip as quickly as many other brands.

Leighton Denny - Glamour Puss, and Pillow Talk are great 50's pinks, there is also a range of classic reds.

Revlon - Still make some classic reds, corals and pinks and a great colour - Emerald City - yes it has sparkle but I love it, so there!  ;-)

Basic vintage manicure steps.

It is possible to do this freehand but I personally can't do it that way, so this is my own method...
  • File your nails into an oval or almond shape (or a vicious point if you so wish - mwahahaha).  I would strongly recommend the glass nail file from Leighton Denny for this – available on the internet
  • Soak the nails for around 5 mins in a warm bowl of water and then remove cuticles in any way you see fit (I personally don’t do this bit as I don’t think I have cuticles really, I certainly have never noticed any difference between when they have been done and when they haven’t...)
  • Ensure you remove any dust or traces of product on the nails by wiping with nail polish remover
  • If you wish, cover the whole nail with with a base coat, I’d go for something matte as it helps the polish cling to your nail later.  Allow it to dry completely.
  •  Then apply....wait or it....hole reinforcers like you used at school!  You know, the things you put over the holes in whole punched document so the pages didn't fall out of your folder.  No?  These I mean.
    I find the paper ones best.  Make sure they are stuck HARD!
  • Apply two coats of your favourite colour, slightly overlapping the strips
  • Peel off the strips just before the final coat is completely dry, I use tweezers for this.
  • Once dry either remove the varnish at the tip with a cotton bud soaked in polish remover VERY carefully or say to hell with it and leave it, topping it all off with a coat of clear polish.
  •  I then like to use Leighton Denny miracle drops to set the polish – this stuff dramatically reduces drying time!

Tada – lovely vintage nails

Useful tutorials:

Blogger is being a pain in the buttocks and won't let me imbed a video so -clicky here.

There are plenty of great tutorials out there on YouTube but I had trouble finding any I really liked as they almost all had contrasting base coats and the whole point of this look is that the tips and moons are without colour - this look was designed to make a manicure last longer as the moon and tip are prime chipping areas.  Anyway - that's my personal bugbear, so if you like that two colour look there are loads of  tutorials on there for you!

That's all folks - let me know if you have any comments or questions!


  1. lovely info!! my grandmother painted my nails for me in high school (*cough* the 70's) and always swiped the sliver off the tip with her finger. Reason - polish formulations easily chipped (and they still do) and longer wear was possible without the paint going all the way to the tip.

    1. Thanks for the blog loaded with so many information. Stopping by your blog helped me to get what I was looking for. sns nails

  2. your nails look fantastic! Thanks for all this info!! This is one aspect of my vintage look I really must pay more attention to!

  3. Me too! I'm determined to set aside one night a week just for self-maintenance. It'll be leg shaving, hair setting, brow plucking and mani/pedi time. Yes.

  4. Wonderful post! I am totally rubbish at the moonicure, but I am going to try your tip at using the hole reinforcers. I've been using manicure strips at the moment which don't work at all.
    I too need to spend more time looking after my hands and nails.

  5. What an interesting post. I play the piano and have to keep short square nails so I am wildly jealous. I love The Women! Naars make a lovely nail varnish in a shade Jungle Red which I bought for my sister.

    The film Whirlpool is worth watching for Gene Tierney's fabulous 40s wardrobe, of course, and at one point there is a close up of her nails - her manicure is identical to yours!

  6. I am a guitar player, so i can only keep nails long on my right hand in four of the fingers haha, i usually just rock out with chipped black polish, but now you got me thinking about mooonicuring it! kewlness!

  7. Awesome post! How funny, this is going to sound very ignorant of me but I had no idea they wore colours like blue and green in the 30s and 40s! I guess we see the classic red more often. What do you think of OPI? I like their range and they have great names. I have nearly every shade of red but sometimes like to wear something a little different like the lovely the Emerald City one you showed :)

  8. thanks for great info..love your beauty posts.

    guess what? I nomitated your lovely blog, for a "One lovely Blog Award"
    check it out!

  9. You know, I've never tried OPI, I think I have a bit of a mental block about them. I might have to try though as their colours are lovely.

    La Dama THANK YOU, that is so very sweet of you. I'm really touched. x

  10. Thank you for stopping by...Nails looking lovely...Sunday is my day of maintaenance,sound like an old car now!

  11. Hi Smuts!

    I have been enjoying your blog a whole bunch so I have nominated you for a blog award:



  12. Great post! Thank you for some useful tips. I was trying a vintage manicure a few times but I am not a PRO.

  13. OOOOO I made an appointment today & was going to ask for a vintage manicure! I was planning on taking pics, but I may just direct her here!

    I don't know if I should go for the tips & moon free from polish, or just the moon. Actually, best not confuse the dear girl, probably just moon...

  14. ooh, let me know how your appointment goes. I have to redo mine today, they look shocking. I just can't seem to find the time as when I'm home I want to knit instead.

  15. I'm in love with your nails!!!!! I think I will bring the picture to the salon and ask them to replicate them on me. Hope they can do a good job like they did on you xxx

  16. I loved this post, so informative! I borrowed some of your knowledge and beautiful Crawford image on my blog, and quoted your blog, come check it out! http://trendpreport.blogspot.com.es/2013/01/catwoman-would-be-proud.html

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