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Fingernail Fashion Choices

By Vicki Vantoch
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 28, 1999; Page C04

I recently ventured into a 12-year-old's lair. Submerged in the bric-a-brac of girlhood, Danielle's room contained all the essentials: small pink containers, large pink containers, heart-shaped containers containing sparkly dangling earrings, a "Danielle" rubber-stamp, "Danielle" spelled out in small colored wooden blocks on the door, hair scrunchies, tiny keys, tiny locks, slightly smaller-than-normal powder blue deodorants, bendable pencils, and plenty of velvety pouches. I breathed in airborne hair products, fruit-smelling lotions and powdery substances--nectars I had once applied devoutly.

Remembering my own preteen products, I picked, poked and scrutinized kiwi-flavored lip glosses, beaded pins and multicolored string bracelets. Opening, closing. Twiddling, sniffing. Ahhh, a hanging wire basket of nail polishes. I dropped into an inflatable chair and glazed my toenails in a thick coat of dark and shimmery purple.

I had culled nail accouterments from my product supply some years before, relegating them to a corner under the sink with Halloween-only Clinique bonus lipsticks. But now, reinvented in a thick, purple enamel named Fetish, I boldly brandished my sockless digits. My 12-year-old hostess offered a tepid endorsement of my nail paint job. "Whatever," she said with standard teenage nonchalance, but I was intoxicated.

I flashed my painted toes. I flashed them to people who probably didn't want to see them. "Fetish," I confided. Between streakings, I inspected nail decor in every corner. "Fetish?" I wondered.

Newly alerted to nail colors and lengths, I watched a Rite-Aid cashier with two-inch acrylics futilely stab a renegade dime. With the dexterity of a grape and closely gnawed nubs (neurosis precludes nail growth), I was intrigued. How did she manage day-to-day coin maneuvers with two-inch talons? More important, why? Sheer masochism? Exhilarated by challenge?

Sure, it's a gas to use chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant but why retard your manual dexterity everywhere you go? There must be a silver lining. Could there be some use for long nails? A more fulfilling back scratch perhaps?

My nail decor musings eventually gave way to a full-blown investigation. The seemingly trivial fingernail is really a whole world of signs and symbols, dangling at the fringes of our bodies. Like other elements of costume, fingernail designs express who we are and what we desire to be.

We make fingernail fashion choices based on our cultural aesthetics, values, social classes and ideas about our roles in society. Russian folklorist Petr Bogatyrev wrote, "In order to grasp the social functions of costumes we must learn to read them as signs in the same way we learn to read and understand languages."

How should we read stick-on rhinestones, dangling nail jewelry, freehand nail art, air-brushed designs, acrylic nail sculptures and green glitter? The endless possibilities in nail decor raise some crucial questions.

Which occasions warrant glue-on jewels? Why do we wear polishes named Whip Cream? In the Buff, and Jaded? French manicures from France? Or, just another example of Francophilia? Is red appropriate for everyone? Why the long nails?

Gene Lakin, who teaches fashion history at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, says long fingernails may be status symbols. "Long nails in 20th-century America may indicate a leisure class. By wearing long nails, people show they don't need to perform manual labor. Similarly [in the 19th century], a pale complexion was associated with wealth because it meant not needing to work in the fields."

"Elegant dress serves its purpose of elegance not only in that it is expensive, but also because it is the insignia of leisure," Thorsten Veblen wrote in his classic "The Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899). "It not only shows that the wearer is able to consume a relatively large value, but it argues at the same time that he consumes without producing." Like the constrictive corset of Veblen's time, long nails today signal which women are too rich and too feminine (wouldn't want the little darling to break a nail) to perform manual labor.

Ironically, long nails are no longer popularly considered elite. "In the 1980s, long nails were a status symbol, but in the '90s many women consider shorter nails classier," says Lauren Breeze, a marketing representative at the nail-polish empire OPI. "Everything was bigger in the '80s--big jewelry, big shoulder pads. It was the 'Dynasty' era and long nails went along with that excess." But today's Gen-X arbiters of fashion and culture have disowned that legacy of extravagance and reoriented style toward thrift-store polyester. America's aesthetic shift from '80s excess (ridiculously extravagant consumption equals beautiful) to '90s excess-repulsed grunge is reflected in nail length.

The short-nail trend, however, hasn't permeated all corners of American society. Each group has different ideas about what constitutes appropriate conspicuous consumption; thus, canons of beauty vary. While the fashion elite may consider long nails declasse, many working-class women prefer them. A Chicago manicurist sums it up: "Middle-income women may think long nails are 'tacky and impractical,' but working-class women think they're 'cute.' "

Fashion historian Lakin says this "inversion" between social classes can be seen throughout history.

"After the French revolution, no one wanted to be associated with court clothes and all the excess and wealth. They wanted to wear simpler clothes." The aristocracy began to shun the "vulgarity" of luxurious court clothing, but other social groups found them attractive.

Whether vulgar or sexy, nail fashion today can reflect values, anxieties and even culinary preferences. In "Hope in a Jar," a social history of America's beauty culture, historian Kathy Peiss notes that women use cosmetics with "many different, contradictory ends in mind: to play the lady or the hussy, to look older or younger, to signify common identities as 'American' and 'respectable,' or to invoke class and ethnic distinctions."

Savvy cosmetic firms tap this market for self-expression by giving polishes expressive names and colors that target every demographic nook and cranny.

"Respectable" types may choose traditional pinky, pukey, beigy colors with Hallmark-unoriginal names like Dusk, Bouquet and Sand (not nearly as inspiring as Fetish), but seductresses may prefer long, red nails.

Long and red can be sexy--even dangerously sexy, as shown on "The Alarmingly Long and Dangerous Nail Web Page," which features photos of women displaying their long, red nails and sells videotapes of long-nailed women doing God knows what (fetish).

Femme fatales, however, can opt for more daring alternatives to the classically sexy red nails. Mate-snagging is easy with Snow Me White (a guaranteed eye-catcher worn with a Lewinsky-style blue dress), Sheer Hot, Sheer Sizzle (notice the heat motif), or, for the recently deflowered, Not in Kansas Anymore . . . Red.

But, modern nail polish expression is not limited to just sexiness or prudishness. Rebels lacquer on rebellious colors like . . . Rebellious (made accessible to international misfits through a French translation, "Rebelle"), Wanted . . . Red or Alive ("a hot-blooded red inspired by the infamous duels of the Old West"') and Gun Metal (for the haute couture of the NRA). Finally, polishes for Thelma and Louise.

Nonconformists may favor the visual violence of greens like Holy Guacamole Frost, Toad, and Daisy the Pig (the marketing ploy escapes me). Another rebelliously repulsive color is Moray Madness, which looks remarkably like snot.

The only definition I could find for "Moray" was "any of various often voracious marine eels of the family Muraenidae, of chiefly tropical coastal waters" (the American Heritage Dictionary). Could this voracious eel have snot-yellow fins trimmed with white glitter? What does Moray Madness express? A passion for eels? Will other eel fans flock? Fetish?

These bold and ugly colors express a '90s Zeitgeist by spoofing traditional, girlish primping. Ideal for Gen-X college students and midlife crisis victims alike, these colors are perfect for protesting a mundane world.

Though they have lost some of the cachet of rebellion since being co-opted by Hollywood hipsters, these colors still provide the best subversive end-of-finger outlet for budding iconoclasts.

My personal favorite is Hard Candy's tinfoil silver polish called Trailer Trash. What's more appealing than adding a dash of irony to an otherwise unaffected look? With the gentle flick of a brush, even the WASPiest intern can be swiftly transformed into a member of the exploited Proletariat.

As Adam Gopnik put it in a New Yorker piece, "Anything [can] gain status by being made ironic."

Thinking back to Danielle's polishes, it makes sense that a 12-year-old, trying to decide who she is, would immerse herself in a vast and diverse collection of hues. Would she wear Rock the Vote Red, Sushi, Girly, Greed, Miss Understood or a chewed, polishless nub?

And as for me . . . Fetish?

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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