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 • Opinion  • Features  • Deep Red or Subtle Pink? A History of Nail Colour and its Association with Class

Deep Red or Subtle Pink? A History of Nail Colour and its Association with Class

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Main image – Sonjalekovic/Stocksy

Bridgerton’s Penelope Featherington wore acrylic nails and everyone is losing it. My TikTok is inundated with influencers asking the ultimate question: does it matter that her nails are not ‘historically accurate’ or are her tips the next big thing? 

You can’t deny it Penn’s shimmering talons are a talking piece. I can’t help but wonder… (IYKYK) why is it so shocking to see an upper-class character with long, sparkling nails and does the mass reaction have a deeper meaning? I’m not just talking about acrylics,  glitter and general fabulousness I’m on about the great brights vs subtle nails debate. 

Red nails, once reserved for the rich and famous, are now a serious no no for royalty. Remember last year when the Princess of Wales strayed from the late Queen Elizabeth II’s colour of choice (Essie’s Ballet Slippers) to wear red nails during Easter? There was uproar. I also urge you to zoom in on the famous picture of Princess Dianna in her revenge dress – she’s wearing pillar box red nails. This brings me to the TikTok-trending #rednailtheory in 2022, when @girlbosstown told us that red nails make us more attractive to men. 

What is the psychology and history behind our fascination with red nails? I want to know where the divide between pale pink and dark, bold tips comes from and what it says about class. I’ve put my beauty geek hat on, delved deep into nail history and interviewed nail artists Amy Oliver and Fia Talons – here’s what I found out. 


Warriors wore black

When I was a teenager, I used to spend weekends painting my nails deep, dark colours to combat my Sunday scaries. I felt powerful, like I was ready to take on the week. Coincidentally, iIn 3200 BC, black and red nails also meant power.

It is believed that warriors in Babylonia (an ancient state in the ancient city of Bablyon) would paint their nails kohl before going off to battle. They believed it would make the enemy more scared of them. Even then, the colour of choice showed the world their rank. Upper class warriors wore black, and the lower-class went for green. 


Image – Courtesy of Amy Oliver


Queens chose red

Oh yes, a total flip from what we see in the nail world today. In 3000 BC, it is said that upper classes in China wore pigmented colours, including red, to show rank and dynasty.

The upper-class citizens painted their tips black and red to symbolise strength and boldness, while the lower-class were only allowed to wear pale nails to show inferiority. The same rule applied to Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Celopatra, famed for wearing red nails – but lower-ranking people had to stick to pale shades. 


So, when did red nails get spicy?

“Only prostitutes wear red nails” a friend said once when I came in on a Monday with my Sunday-scary tips, ready to take on the world. Turns out she wasn’t completely wrong, it turns out that back in the 1800s courtesans wore red nail polish. This could have triggered an association between red nails and sexuality. 

Fast forward to the 1950s and we were treated with Hollywood glam. Classic red nails and lips were everywhere – think Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth (both seen as sex symbols). This leads us to 1952, when Revlon blessed us with its (now iconic) Fire and Ice lipstick and nail kit. 

I’ll be honest, when I saw #rednailtheory pop-up on my phone I wasn’t buying it – but there is (some) research to back it up. A 2008 study by The University of British Columbia says “red, relative to other achromatic and chromatic colors, leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable. Men seem unaware of this red effect, and red does not influence women’s perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor men’s perceptions of women’s overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence.” 

I’m rethinking everything – do I have a deep-rooted bias? Is this why I only wear OPI Bubble Bath for job interviews? Deep down, I feel that brights and reds are drawing unwanted attention to myself. 


A moment for the French mani

Understated colours and neat, clean tips, except for the classic French mani, are now associated with elite social circles. Did you know that the French manicure was actually invented by founder of Orly nails, American Jeff Pink, back in 1975? He painted the style onto model’s nails for a Parisian catwalk.

The idea was that the nail art was versatile enough to go with any look, but was still distinctive, and he coined it the French manicure. It’s been a hit ever since, and in the 1990s, Princess Diana was well known for her ‘90s French tip. 


Let’s talk about long nails 

Crowther says that “as a nail artist I am continually inspired by both historic and current. I am inspired by nail artists within the Black community, whom are key in influencing and creating nail trends.”

This takes us back to 1988 when (in just one weekend) Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo Jo) broke the 100 metres world record three times at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. She also wore long, red, white and blue, bedazzled tips and the press couldn’t stop talking about them – they were different to other athlete’s nude nails.

We now see Olympic athletes wear acrylics more often (think gymnast Sunisa Lee winning Olympic gold with a nail-art design of five olympic rings on her pointer and middle fingernails), but at the time the press almost gave Flo Jo’s nails more coverage than her incredible win. 

Acrylics grew in popularity in the early 1990s, when a growing number of US celebs showed off their nails – including Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott. The Kardashian-Jenner clan are now in the limelight for their long nails but they are in no way inventors of the trend. Modern-day acrylics started in the US in 1950, and Donyae Coles is famed for wearing them  on the cover of Twen magazine in 1966. More recently, Cardi B has become a nail legend – with articles sprawling the internet on how to get her sparkling nails. 


Royal etiquette and subtle nail shades 

Okay, so we’ve established that the acrylic nails we see today are a new invention (other ways to extend nails have been around for yonks), but I still want to know where the British royal nail code has come from. In an interview with HuffPost British etiquette coach William Hanson said that “nothing about any outfit any member of royalty wears should distract from the duty at hand.” 


Image – Courtesy of Amy Oliver


Director and senior tutor of The English Manner also told HuffPost that “royal ladies always keep their nails beautifully manicured, but if by some unfortunate mishap a nail gets chipped when out in public, it is much less visible if it is a natural shade.” Okay, makes sense – getting a chipped nail on duty would be annoying. Could this explain the 180-degree swap from bright colour to pared-back shades?

Amy Oliver agrees that this could be the case “I think that certain colours and shades can give off different impressions. People definitely seem to think of nude colours as being neutral, clean and professional as they’re subtle.”

We’ve talked about the royals, but what about celebrities? Crowther says, “recently I would say pearl chromes are associated with the upper-class. For example, Hayley Bieber with the ‘glazed donut nail’ trend. This is not a colour but a white-nude base with a pearl chrome finish. When I think of red, it reminds me of fashion. Think Louboutins and other designer brands.”


The takeaway 

Nails and class are still a hot topic in the press, on the gram, and in the caf with your mates – like it or not, we notice the tips of the celebrity and we all have opinions. History tells us that bright, richly-coloured talons symbolised wealth, status and power, but there is now expectation for British royals to choose light colours that don’t stand out. If #rednailtheory is anything to go by, this could be due to a history of associations between the colour red and sexuality. 

Saying this – things are changing. In recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Kate Middleton and Princess Eugenie showing off scarlet tips.

For me, expression through nails is a sign of power, culture and creativity – they show the world how we’re feeling and who we are. As for Penelope Featherington – the Victorian upper-class typically wore oval-shaped, neat, colourless nails, so her acrylics aren’t bang on the money. But Bridgerton isn’t supposed to be historically accurate – I’m here for Penn’s nails, all the way. 


Meet the experts 

Amy Oliver is a freelance manicurist who specialises in nail art. 


Sophia Crowther is an expert nail artist and brand ambassador for Nail Lab. 


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Freelance Beauty Writer

Shannan is a freelance beauty journalist with over seven years of experience working on beauty desks.  You’ll see her work published in the likes of Harrods' own magazine, Red, Women’s Wear Daily, Canvas8 and more. She regularly guest lectures on various courses at Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design about digital content. Shannan is obsessed with all-things beauty, and particularly loves writing about scent – she was a finalist for the 'Rising Star' category at The Jasmine Awards 2023, one of the most prestigious journalistic awards in the beauty industry.

Expertise: Makeup, skincare
Education: Falmouth University

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