Sigh. What is a vintage gal like me to do in a world of Technicolor nail polish?
I try to be edgy and fashion-forward. (OK, that’s a lie. I am usually never in with the fads. Every once in a while I find me and the times collide, we align, this is a rarity. Well, style over fashion, yes?) Admittedly, sometimes I want to throw all my classic, vintage, not-of-this-decade habits to the wind and just wear teal nail polish already. But, again, sigh. It’s just not me. I sit and think how I would like to be able to reconcile the retro and contemporary parts of myself through the color of the shellac on my fingers and toes, but it just never goes so well.
I have a monthly subscription to a cosmetics company. The long and short of it is I get a monthly box of samples. What I like I can buy more of, there are incentives; the products are often brand new, yadda yadda. This company often sends me things I like, and often sends me things I wish I could like—prime example is this teal nail polish. I’ve seen my friends, people I work with, people at the store wearing such a shade. “That looks cute,” I think. But on all of my regular pilgrimeldges to buy nail polish, never did I buy a teal shade of my own, despite there being many to choose from. (I did experiment with several purple shades a few seasons ago; I gave it my own mixed reviews.) When this one showed up in the mail, I thought, “Well, gee, I guess I should give it a go.” I plunged in, painted my toes (not brave enough for the fingers) teal, and spent the next several days staring at them. “This kinda works for the summer, don’t you think? I’m going to the beach soon; it kinda looks beach-y appropriate. This might look better once I get my eco-friendly spray tan.” These are the things I said, while asking for opinions from those nearest and dearest. They all waffled on giving me an opinion, but did agree it was definitely rad for the beach. Good thing it was a sample sized bottle.
See, I never know if I embrace the retro way of dressing because I like the style or because the style liked me. It might be the latter. I love that currently in stores you can find all the clothes to make a rockabilly broad like me dressed for success. This was a style I accidentally encountered while trying to get dressed one day for a hostessing job. It looked great, I received plenty of compliments, and I started looking into how to do this on purpose rather than accidentally. And then BAM!, MadMen came out and everyone started wanting the high-waist pencil skirt with a belt. I’m OK with it though; I don’t feel like my thunder is being stolen. I’m stocking up my closet for the next forty years.
The thing is, I’m already blonde and pale, and now I’m wearing shift dress and pearls, so I probably can’t expect to pull off the teal polish. And while some days I feel boring, most of the time I’m happy to stick in my retro shaded world, where the colors so occasionally go outside the lines.
Right now, while I wear teal on my toes, I’m wearing something called “Bare Bones” on my fingers. It’s somewhere between nude and taupe, but I’m pretty happy with it. However, I don’t think it would have been available at your local department store prior to gender revolution.
While “nail polish” as we know it isn’t even a century old yet, the idea of coloring your nails is nothing new in this world. Let’s be honest: we humans will decorate any part of ourselves once we figure out how—then we’ll reinvent it dozens of times and pretend it’s new. There are examples of most ancient (and really old) cultures dying their nails and drawing pictures, though the specifics seem to be a bit fuzzy. Really, that’s not the most important thing we need anthropologists and archeologists to be working on—though, when they’ve figured out everything else in the course of world events out, I’d be curious to know the answer to nail trends.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, these same studiers of people tell us these people liked their nails shiny. I’m inclined to say this was mostly women, but considering all the wigs and nonsensical shoes, I can’t say that in confidence. I like the idea of everyone sitting around in the parlor after dinner collectively buffing our nails. We might do this at my house (I’m unsure how that suggestion will go over). While we know people made their nails shiny, it seems no one is sure how this happened, or is at least willing to share. The thing is, we got all busy as a race developing governments and weapons, and at some point industry and just let our nails got to pot.
Enter the 1920s and modern nail polish. Gee, everyone thought this was just the most brilliant idea a homo sapien ever had. But remember—nothing is ever new. Our nail polish (unless you’re dying your nails like Cleopatra—and if so, I’m interested in at least a conversation) was derived in the roaring twenties as a by-product from an automobile protectant. Based on the way my nails chip with shoddy polish of this millennium, I’m going to say we’ve lost something in the translation of the ensuing decades. But, alas, that’s beside the point.
Here’s the really kind of cool thing about nail polish: its birth onto the market very closely coincides with Hollywood’s decision to in fact go Technicolor (all ties back, people, all ties back). Actresses, then like now, liked to wear nail polish. It looked great on these actresses up on screen in Technicolor. Audiences said, “Alright, you don’t have to sell me further. Where can I acquire this magical product?”
But what colors were they buying? Certainly not “Bare Bones.” Probably not “Steel Grey Heart” or “Terra Cotta” or “Midnight Black”. When we think of our vintage sisters’ nails, we think of red. I think of coral. Sometimes we think of pink for good measure.
We think of red for our forewearers—but today we (sometimes) think of red nails as flashy and indicative of vixen behavior or (eek) trashy fashion sense. (For the record: I wear red nails a considerable amount of the time, and I’m not saying I agree with these sentiments at all…just that I’ve heard them…sometimes while I’m sporting red polish…It made me sad.)
I remember in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex the shock Milton feels when seeing Tessie’s toenails are painted red. It’s surprising and a little sensual for the teenage boy. This is the 1940s. But Tessie doesn’t seem to be reveling in some secret side of herself at all by her red toes—I’m pretty sure she just likes them. I mean, I like it when I have red toes. They don’t say anything else other than that about me.
Plus, how much of a pop do you think RED NAILS gave on a giant Technicolor screen? Enough for you to probably go out and buy red polish. I mean, if “The Rachel” was enough to get women into their salons on the small screen, I can see why red is still such a remarkably popular nail color.
My guess is the same about pink. It’s (traditionally) feminine. I am also guilty of sometimes having pink nails or barely pink nails. The other reasons has something to do with what happened in 1937—but that’s just my guess, and we’ll get to it in a moment.
Because briefly I must say, I have a serious love of coral nails. And whenever I see them on an actress of the retro times, or an actress imitating the retro times, I want to write her a fan letter that says, “Who makes your polish? Oh, and job well done.”
For years I haven’t been able to find the right shade of coral nail polish. If one day I found one called “1962 coral for housewives,” I’d buy the store out of it. Instead, they’re called terra cotta (aforementioned—this one I own, and it’s pretty close), and beach house, and mountain sun, and they’re just not quite right. More sighing.
But—why are these the colors? Why are we so narrowed in our thoughts, they so narrowed in our interpretation? Ah, I have a theory. And yes, it all happened in 1937. In 1937, Revlon (the company that is responsible for both starting modern nail polish and making the Bare Bones I wear now) started producing lipsticks that matched nail polishes. Wow. OK, maybe I’ll have to concede that it is revolutionary and new (though, if we dug back in the history books, maybe not). I think this is really a very brilliant idea, and it really does make sense for a retro gal. Therefore, yes, you’d wear red, pink, and coral. Today nail polish colors are varied; we don’t always match our polish to our lipstick. I mean, you wouldn’t wear silver because it’s not 1999 anymore—I do recall wearing silver lipstick to at least one dance in middle school circa 1999. But now I guess my task is doubly hard finding the right coral polish AND matching coral lipstick. Sigh for me one more time.
In summation, “Technicolor” is one of my favorite words ever, and I wish I could have used it every third sentence today. Also, I’m feeling very self-conscious about the painted color of my toes as I sit barefoot, starring at them after expounding on it for so many words. New red polish it is.
-by Laura Hallman