Friday, December 14, 2012

Nail Polish and Social Class Essay

Several people have expressed interest in reading the final product of my 10 page (double-spaced) paper about nail polish that I wrote for my writing class this last term, and I thought it might work best to post it here. I did get an A on the paper, so hopefully it's not too embarrassing. xP
Anyway, here it is in its entirety:

Nail Polish and Social Class
            To most people, nail polish is simply another cosmetic used to decorate the body. However, the use of nail décor has evolved over the last four thousand years. For the first couple thousand years, nail polish could be an important symbol of social standing, or of one’s wealth and position in society. Yet the invention of modern nail lacquer has demolished that purpose. People in today’s era are lucky to think of nail polish as simply a cosmetic. Nail polish being just a cosmetic is proof that we have moved beyond previous visual signifiers of social class. Most people today would be outraged if the government were to dictate the colour of people’s nails, which is a luxury that did not exist until relatively recently. People today now have the freedom to use nail polish as they wish. No longer is this outlet of beauty and individualism limited to only the wealthy. Nail polish is a truly democratic cosmetic because it is available to almost everyone without limits.
            The Egyptians may have been the first to decorate their nails. There is evidence as early as 1400 BC that the ancient Egyptians would dye their nails using henna, though the practice probably started even farther in the past (Miczak 97). Mummies dating back to the 11th dynasty have been discovered with hennaed nails (Miczak 98). The practice of hennaing nails may have started because “henna has anti-fungal properties and has long been used on the nails for such purposes,” since the ancient Egyptians had to battle many infections (Miczak 99). Regardless of the original reason, the idea of hennaed nails denoting beauty seems to have caught on. Not only did it catch on, but the colour of one’s nails became a signifier of social class. The more saturated the red of the nails, the higher the social class. For example, “during … Nefretete’s era, only royal women could wear such bright colours on the nails,” most likely since henna was expensive to buy if you couldn’t grow it yourself (Miczak 97). Though eye kohl, which could double as an effective sunscreen, was thought of as a necessity for all Egyptians, regardless of social class, henna did not earn a similar place, regardless of its health effects (Hunt 2). This idea that nail colour, but not other forms of cosmetics, reflected social class is interesting. Perhaps because henna was more expensive than the materials for other cosmetics, it arose out of a natural reflection of those being able to afford more, could show it off more. Regardless of why, the Egyptians were not alone in decorating their nails.
The Chinese also decorated their nails. Ancient China was the first place to develop a nail lacquer, using “gum Arabic, egg whites, gelatin and bees wax” (Hunt 4). The Chinese regularly painted their nails, often focusing on the colours red, gold, silver, and black (Miczak 99). However, nail polish was not available to everyone at this time. The royalty regularly reserved a few colours that no one else was allowed to wear. The Mandarins would gild their fingernails to show their higher social class (Trumble 168). During the Chou dynasty in China, only royalty was allowed to wear gold or silver (Toedt 49). During a later dynasty, royalty chose the forbidden colours as red and black (Toedt 49). The lower classes were allowed pale colours, and the lowest classes were forbidden from any nail colouring. There is no note of their nail polish concoction being particularly expensive, so the separation by social class was likely purely a visual one. The Ming dynasty also kept their nails long, as a sign that they had high enough social status that they did not need to touch anything (Grinberg). Nail polish emerged as a subtle, but very present, method of distinguishing social classes, turning what should be an ordinary cosmetic into a tool to further divide people.
The upper class through much of time have been documented with manicured nails. There were various powders or creams that could be buffed onto the nails for a subtle pink colour or shine (Riordan 204).Records from 17th- and 18th-century European royal courts document the appearance of shiny, varnished nails” (Drahl). Manicured fingers were often a sign of wealth, since lower class people could not afford the luxury of coloured finger nails (Miczak 100). A working class person would have to use their hands too much to be able to keep them beautifully groomed, as “beauty equals idleness” that most people could not afford (Riordan 204). It is not an uncommon idea that one could identify and upper class person from a lower class person by judging their hands. Rough, calloused hands with chipped nails show that one had to work with their hands, while smooth, gentle hands showed that they had no need to expend their energies in such physical pursuits. One might say that the nails are unique in that most everyone uses eyes or lips in the same way, so any cosmetic application may be used in much the same way. However, only the royalty or high upper class are allowed the luxury of not working with their hands. Specially decorated nails emphasise the beauty of an idle hand. At this point, nail polish was simply not a luxury everyone could enjoy.
 The invention of liquid nail polish in the twentieth century revolutionized nail décor. Shortly after the automobile industry developed a quick-drying lacquer for cars, the inventors realized that this enamel could also be used on fingernails (Riordan 207). Cutex was the first company to be granted a patent for nail polish, in 1919 (Riordan 207). But it was Charles Revson, who founded Revlon, who really made modern nail polish a popular item (Riordan 209). Now, nail polish was easily accessible and not expensive. The formula of nail polish has not really changed since then (Drahl). However, the popularity has certainly increased. A combination of advertisements and fascination brought nail polish into the spot light (Riordan 222). Women of all ages enjoy lacquered fingers. A survey of teenagers in the 1950s revealed that “ninety percent had worn nail enamel since they were fourteen” (Corson 535). So many people, and especially so many ordinary young people, could never have worn nail polish in the days of what it was limited by social class. One thing became clear: nail polish was a trend that all could enjoy.
 The easy accessibility of modern nail polish demolished any limits based on social class. While some celebrity intervention was required to open up the full range of colours to all, once it was open, there was no limit to who could enjoy coloured nails. Initially, even with the invention of liquid nail polish, women turned primarily to pale pinks, or the shades that could be achieved previously with buffing creams. Cutex began by offering a darker pink in 1924 (Riordan 207). It was French Princess de Faucigny-Lucinge who painted her nails a crimson colour in 1930 that started the trend of darker colours (Riordan 208). Nail polish colours reminiscent of henna red were a natural to like (Miczak 96). Other colours such as emerald green and blood red started in Paris, but soon spread to other areas (Corson 496). By the end of the 1930s, “nail polish was available in every colour fathomable: blue, green, mother of pearl, wicked red, crimson red, blood red, bull’s eye red, … gold and silver” (Riordan 209). With every colour available, every woman could find a shade to her liking. Now, a casual stroll down the cosmetic department of nearly any store reveals hundreds of different colours. This was not possible as little as a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand. While the limits on social class might have made sense for the Egyptians, as it depended on how much henna they had access to, now the formula and the cost is the same regardless of colour. This is what makes modern nail polish so amazing. Now the cost or availability of nail polish does not change based on colour, and everyone has access to it.
Nail polish is not merely a cosmetic but an indicator of the economy. Though the rise of nail polish coincided with The Great Depression, many women still set aside enough to buy some nail polish, which could be bought for as little as “ten cents a bottle” (Riordan 214). This trend is commonly cited as “the lipstick effect” or “the lipstick indicator,” which refers to the tendency of women to buy more cosmetic products, primarily lipstick as the name suggests, when there is economic trouble. However, in today’s economy, nail polish has actually far outsold lipstick, with nail polish sales rising 43% to lipstick’s 7% in the last three years (Frost). This just attests to the popularity of nail polish. Nail polish is an affordable accessory. Though it is increasingly easy to paint one’s own nails, even getting a manicure in a salon can cost as little as $30 (Grinberg). A bottle of nail polish can easily be found for an easy 99 cents, making nail polish accessible to just about anyone. Karen Grant remarks that “it's rare to see a trend grow so strong in both mass and prestige channels,” which nail polish has done (Kalinske). This is yet another example of how nail polish knows no bounds of social class. The nail polish indicator is an idea that is built upon the idea that nail polish is available to everyone. That it is so popular that it can be an indicator of the economy would have been impossible with historic nail polish. Nail polish is extremely popular among both the rich and the poor.
Besides from being easily affordable, nail polish is a way into fashion that can fit in anyone’s lifestyle. Though the nails were previously a neglected outlet of fashion, polished nails have recently become huge in the fashion industry. For example, Wes Gordon actually used neon nail colour instead of jewellery in his spring 2012 fashion show (Kalinkse). Nail polish’s role in fashion is another way in which it demolishes social classes. Many trends which start in fashion work their way into the mainstream of the rest of the population, and nail polish is no exception. Any woman can take the colour they see on a runway model and apply it to her own nails, which means that though a school girl and a high fashion model may be in different social classes, they can still wear the same nail polish. As such, though nail colour is entering the world of high fashion, it is also entering the lives of everyday women. If the latest fashion trend is neon yellow, it is far cheaper and more accessible for a woman to by a $2 bottle of neon yellow nail polish than to splurge on a $50 neon yellow purse (Kalinske). Nail polish is also more forgiving than most fashion items, as Bill Boraczek says, “If you think you're too curvy or too straight, too young or too old, unattractive or not, it doesn't matter because you can still have beautifully groomed nails” (Grinberg). Since it is a common thought that women today are very focussed on their appearances, this idea that nail colour can add to the beauty of anyone with ease is understandably appealing. Nail colour does not discriminate based on your body size or age, it does not look any different if you are wealthy or poor. Nail polish can be applied and can look good on anyone. Nail colour is visible without a mirror, unlike most cosmetics (Grinberg). And for those seeking a salon experience, getting a manicure is quicker and less permanent than getting a hair-cut (Frost). It’s also body art that is temporary, unlike tattoos (Frost). It is also remarkable that the same styles of nail art appear on both celebrities and ordinary people. Though Olympic athletes and Lady Gaga bring attention to their nails with spirited displays of varying degrees of elaborate works of art on their nails, an ordinary person can have the same kinds of art (Frost). Many ordinary civilians can be spotted with nearly the same tuxedo nail art that celebrity Zooey Deschanel made famous (Grinberg). Truly anyone can display equivalent nail art, regardless of social standing.
Nail polish is truly unique, even in the realm of cosmetics. It is different than other cosmetics, in that it is easier to wear very bright colours or little works of art on the nails than on the face. Also, a single application is capable of lasting multiple days. Another unique aspect of nail polish is that it seems to purely offer a way to add to the appearance, without something being lacking if it is not present. Many women who wear make-up may say that they feel ugly without, for example, mascara. However, few people have the same feeling about nail polish (Overbay). Yet nail polish is still able to add feelings of beauty and creative expression to the wearer, making it something that is still desirable. Similarly, nail polish can be seen as a cosmetic that offers fun in addition to beauty (Jongebloed). While make-up applied to the face mainly seeks to increase attractiveness, décor applied to the nails can be a fun process that isn’t so overt in the hunt for beauty. Nail colour can be a fun accessory in a way that normal make-up cannot. Nail polish is offered at a range of prices, sold at both common drug stores and high-end cosmetic boutiques, so that it is affordable to everyone. All of this makes nail polish a cosmetic that is appealing to all social classes.
Emanuella Grinberg of CNN writes that “nail art has emerged as a democratic form of self-expression in which anyone can participate.” Nail art means a different thing to every person who participates in it. Some people who enjoy painting their own nails like to spend the time painting their nails, knowing that it will last a few days for the mere hour or so of work that they get to spend solely on themselves. People who enjoy doing their own nail art get the added joy of seeing a tiny representation of their artistic talent on their finger tips for all to enjoy. Those who like to get their nails done get to relax for an hour or so as a manicurist decorates their hands. Some women see polished nails as a sign of cleanliness, or another detail of looking put together. Some people dislike painting their fingernails, but enjoy having painted toenails, because even if they wear shoes which conceal this decoration, that’s a tiny pop of colour and fun just for them. A woman may look at her nails and see beauty, femininity, luxury, art, or perhaps even just the woman’s favourite colour. This idea that nail polish can express a different thing to different people echoes this idea that nail art is a wonderful from of self-expression. It is also democratic in that everyone can do it. It is up to the choice of the wearer what style, what colour, or even if there will be a colour at all. No one is dictating what can or cannot be done to the nails. The main point is that everyone can enjoy lacquered nails.
Some people may argue that though there are no limits according to social class, half the population is excluded from nail décor: the men. In the days of henna, men actually hennaed their nails for battle and special holidays (Miczak 101). However, sometime around the invention of modern nail polish, this fashion fell out of favour for men. The argument could be made that nail polish cannot be considered a truly democratic form of expression if it excludes the male population. However, while it is certainly less common for men to wear nail polish, there is truly nothing preventing them from doing so. Men have as much access to nail polish as women. It is becoming increasingly popular for men to get a non-coloured manicure just to aid in cleanliness or professional appearances. There are even new brands of coloured nail polish with names like AlphaNail and ManGlaze that market exclusively to men. Though a man with coloured nails may still be seen as an oddity today, this is in the process of changing, and there are no true limits or restrictions based on gender.
Some might say there are still social class boundaries relating to nail polish. For example, Mythra explains in a blog post her idea of “The Nail Polish Theory of Social Class.” Her theory states that even today, you can tell the social class of the wearer based on what colour it is. The darker the colour, the lower the class. Lighter colours or no nail polish signifies someone who most likely went to an Ivy League school, or someone who is of high socioeconomic status (Mythra). If one glances around a college campus, they are far more likely to see a college student with polished nails than a professor. Though modern nail polish is available to all, perhaps it is now the lower class that is more likely to wear nail polish.
 While historically there was a connection to social class, there is no real evidence for a current connection. While shortly after the creation of modern nail polish, certain colours were still connected to social standing – like the idea in the 1920s that women who wore dark red nail polish were “fast” – there simply is no standing for such an argument today (Riordan). To the modern woman, making judgments about social class based on nail colour is as ridiculous as making assumptions about social class based on the object’s favourite colour (Davis). Though nail decoration was previously about making a social statement, now it about making a unique statement about individuality (Grinberg). Most cheap nail polishes will deliver an equal look to the more expensive brands, and even if you can’t afford to get a professional manicure done, nail polish is easy for the average person to apply with a little practice. Perhaps women with more education may be less likely to wear nail polish, but there isn’t a strong fact base for this. Many celebrities, who are of the highest socioeconomic class, wear nail polish. Eleanor Roosevelt may have been the first woman from an upper-class home to wear coloured nail polish (Trumble 174). Also, even women who are educated wear nail polish. For example, First Lady Michelle Obama has a postgraduate degree, and has been spotted wearing various shades of nail lacquer throughout her husband’s presidency. She is certainly not the only well-educated woman who colours her nails. The fact of the matter is that one cannot guess the social class of someone based on the colour of their nails. Historically, if a woman were seen with deep red nails, obviously stained with a significant amount of henna, there could be little doubt that she was high class. One cannot do the same thing today. Mythra seems to argue that the very colour a person prefers is dictated by social class, but this just isn’t logical. Modern people are free to wear and enjoy any colour, in any form – including on their nails. There is simply no basis in today’s modern world for the argument that nail polish is based on social class. It would be wrong to judge a person based on the colour of their nails. Nail polish has truly transcended the limits of social class.
Modern nail polish knows no bounds, and certainly not any based on social class. The idea that nail colour has no limits gives people another outlet to express themselves. Having artistic outlets or ways to visually express one’s self are truly important to a person’s well-being. Historically, people lacked the option of nail colour as a release. But luckily, those days are done. Many elements of fashion are still segregated based on social class. Nail polish is unique in its ability to rise above social class. But the fact that nail polish doesn’t have to mean anything at all is perhaps its best trait. There was once more riding on nail colour than it truly deserved. Now, people are free to wear nail polish as they please, and they needn’t fear class judgements or government retributions if they should do so. Nail polish is now available for all, as it should be.

Works Cited
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