Sunday, August 1, 2010


Jean says: Given the proliferation of nail salons and the ubiquitous "mani-pedi" phenomenon even among grade-school girls and pre-schoolers (what's THAT about?), this week we are examining the subject in depth! Just as our hair textures and wardrobe color palettes differ, so do our approaches to fingernails. I color my nails with polish. Valerie does not. We are united on one point, however: we have both resisted the trend (it is much too entrenched to be termed a fad at this point) toward salon manicures. We are proud to say that we do our own nails.

Originating in China in 3,000 BC, nail color indicated one's social status -- according to a Ming dynasty manuscript, royal fingernails were painted black and red. The Egyptians also colored their nails, using red to show the highest social class. It is said that Cleopatra's nails were painted a deep red, whereas Queen Nefertiti went with a flashier ruby shade. In ancient Egypt and Rome, military commanders also painted their nails to match their lips before they went off to battle. Here I am, channeling my inner Nefertiti with my fire engine red nail.

Similar to our hair (and horses' hooves), nails are dead cells of a protein called keratin. Nails derive their hardness from sulfur in the amino acids binding the keratin together and their shine and pliability from fat and water molecules between the layers of keratin. Nails grow an average of 1/8 inch per month, so it takes from four to six months to grow an entirely new nail. Also, nails grow faster in respose to stimulation (tapping and buffing). That's why nails on right-handers grow faster than on their left. Ironically, according to, biting your nails can also increase nail growth since it increases blood circulation. Illnesses and some prescription medications can slow growth. It's no surprise that as we age, nail growth naturally slows down (as do so many other things).

Jean says:I was blessed with long nail beds. My nails start lower down my fingers, giving the illusion of length, and (bonus points), they grow like weeds. Nails are great. They accentuate gestures, elongating the line of the hand and arm. I am a ham. I often match my nail color to my Bakelite and plastic jewelry to show it off to its best advantage. On the left, I am wearing a red hinged Bakelite cuff and two Bakelite rings on either side of a round plastic ring. On the right, I'm wearing a Tokyo Boy watch with red rubber band, two red Bakelite rings and a red plastic skull (Meredith Katz, "Made Her Think"). [You can click on our photos to enlarge.]

Contrary to the advice in all the lifestyle magazines, I use my nails as tools all the time - to remove staples, pry open cans and lids, scratch off all manner of schmutz and dig in the dirt. If one breaks, it grows back. Big deal -- with one exception -- when they break below the quick, I see stars. It hurts like heck because of the concentration of nerves and blood circulation. No wonder torturers threaten to push bamboo sticks under them. I would not make a good spy. I'd confess anything and everything if someone were pulling out my nails!

I wear relatively cheap nail polish: Brucci Nail Hardener (available at CVS and Duane Reade and numerous other venues.) In my experience, the drugstore variety polishes wear longer, chip less and dry faster than the expensive department store and designer brands. Bright red is my all-time favorite color. In this photo, I am wearing Brucci's Romantic Red. It has little to no blue undertones. Newly applied, it is the same color as a bright red Ferrari. (Trust me, I've done the side-by-side comparison too many times to count.) For anyone who likes a bluer tone, try Brucci's Berrylicious. It is gorgeous. Over time, after application, nail color changes slightly. I think this is as a result of exposure to the sun and products of modern living: body oils, suncreens, antibacterial towelettes, bath and dish soaps, shampoos and conditioners. The toy I am holding is Nathan from Strange Company. (Valerie says: Isn't Nathan wonderful? A girl is never too old for a good toy!)

Nail polish, like lipstick, should flatter the wearer's skin tone and mood. Bright reds are cheery. As a rule, the darker the color, the more sophisticated. Colors like black, purple, navy blue, charcoal and oxblood are more Goth, telegraphing a darker outlook. In this photo, I'm wearing Brucci's Black Cherry. I eschew metallics and pale shades. While I can appreciate lime greens, fushias and bright corals on other people, they are not my cup of tea. As far as diamonds and metal studs embedded in long, fake nails, don't even go there, girlfriend! I leave that whole scene to teen queens and rappers.

Left to right, I am wearing a vintage carved black Bakelite cube, black skull (Meredith' Katz, "Made Her Think"), gold and amethyst college ring and gold 9/11 ring (by Kirsten Hawthorne), black Bakelite thumb ring, gold family crest signet, hammered rose gold orb with apricot colored diamond chip (Kirsten Hawthorne), gold high school signet (with monogram long worn away), gold stackable ring (Kirsten Hawthorne), black molded plastic ring (Meredith Katz, "Made Her Think").

Unfortuately, as you can see from this macro close-up by Ms. Valerie, I'm not a stickler for edging. I apply polish to my nails in much the same way I paint apartment walls - fast and loose. Besides, polish wears off the skin much quicker than it does nails. And it isn't very noticeable unless one is looking down the barrel of the gun, so to speak. Does the fact that we were pressed for time buy me any sympathy? I slapped a coat of dark polish over my red for this photo shoot before we headed uptown to Tender Buttons. (Valerie interjects: SO much to say about Tender Buttons. We've mentioned them briefly once before. One day we'll have to go into more detail. Ever notice how women collect SMALL objects, and like SMALL boxes? Tender Buttons is perfect for these particular obsessions because it carries nothing but small objects (fabulous buttons) all filed away in small boxes, kind of like library card catalogue drawers for buttons.)

Fascinating nail facts: People have been manicuring their nails for more than 4,000 years. In southern Babylonia, noblemen used solid gold tools to give themselves manicures and pedicures. The use of fingernail polish can be traced back even further.

In fiction and film, long nails have long been associated with evil and the supernatural. Murnau's Nosferatu sported long bat-like teeth, ears and nails which made the bald, skinny creature even more menacing. Luckily, Herzog's remake maintained that image. (Photos courtesy of and

Fu Manchu has not one but two keratin-related claims to fame! Not only is he famous for his long, thin moustache, but also for his long nails. Lon Chaney portrayed the evil Fu Manchu in the 1927 silent film "Mr. Wu". Rather than hire real Asians, old-time Holywood studios went to great lengths with makeup and wigs.

Boris Karloff donnned eye makeup and crazy nails in the 1932 talkie "The Mask of Fu Manchu". Myrna Loy played his evil daughter and sported similarly long appendages. As an evil scientist, Karloff sought the sword and mask of Ghengis Khan to secure his own power as world conqueror.

Christopher Lee's immortal portrayal of the sinister Chinese warlord appears in 1968's "The Castle of Fu Manchu". (Photos from The Horror of it All (THOIA) website and

Valerie adds: Bonus points if you can name a movie that featured red nails as a pivotal point for its heroine.

Here are two visual clues:

Extra bonus points if you can name the nail polish color shown above (sorry - it was a black and white movie, so we can't show you the fabulous color.)

Jean says: Well, dear readers, when Valerie and I decided to explore the topic of nails, little did I know that fingernails and toenails are big-time fetish objects! There are whole websites and chat rooms devoted to the topic. I should probably have guessed, given that shoe fetishes are so well known, that all things foot-related could similarly be the objects of obsession. But who knew fingernails held a similar exalted state? THAT's a topic for someone else's blog.

Valerie sighs: When Jean and I go out, I leave the responsibility for beautiful nails to her, and she handles it like a champ, as you can see. I am a dropout in the race for fabulous nails. The spirit is willing, but it seems the flesh (I mean the nail) is weak.

My mother had wonderful, beautiful nails – long, slim and even, which she could have done anything with, but chose not to, including passing them along to me. Alas. It was my sister who inherited the great nails. I guess that makes sense, since she was the first born and has the rights to primogeniture. On the other hand (so to speak), I’m taller than both of them, yet have the shortest hands – and nails – in the family. What's up with that?

My nails look like after-thoughts, as if they were the crude little half moons or circles shown here - painted by Picasso to imply finger tips.

In addition, some of my nails, instead of being flat as perfect little pancakes, or gently rounded like the middle of the letter C, are shaped more like a letter S, undulating unevenly. Sometimes they develop odd creases across them. As I have a bird's eye view of these flaws, when I put on nail polish I remind myself of Paul McCartney coloring his hair. Do I think I'm fooling anyone?

In any case, I am no hand model. SIGH.

I had long painted nails ONCE – when I was fourteen, and all my little peers were growing and painting theirs. Then one of my ten nails broke. Having nine long nails and one short was unthinkable. Jean's angst-free approach to different sizes is the correct one. But teenagers are angst-ridden. I cut all my nails short, and never succeeded in growing them again, despite numerous attempts. When the natural look took hold in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I had a perfect excuse to ignore my nails and their shortcomings.

One day, well into adulthood (in the ‘80s?), I saw a photograph in a fashion magazine of a model with very short lacquered fingernails. That one photo allowed me to give myself permission to paint my short nails. I did so for some long period of time, and enjoyed it, but in the end I tired of the practice. I tired of changing colors to suit my clothes, tired of chipping nails in public, where I could not repair them, tired of waiting for polish to dry, and tired of accidentally smearing wet polish against some unintended surface. When finally I tired of spending the required time on the activity, I quit altogether.

In recent years, I also tired of assiduously filing my nails after clipping them. Now, as soon as they get a bit long, I clip them in a haphazard way, and I’m done.

About six years ago, I attempted to paint my nails for a special occasion, but did a bad job, leaving streaks and smears and bumps. I removed all the polish, but did not have time to try again, so I amused myself by putting a single drop of polish on each nail. The rest was history. Now, although I seldom paint my nails, if I do, it’s only with a single drop (see photo). It’s applied quickly and dries quickly, it’s decorative, and there’s a touch of humor to it. Most people never even notice the dots (one friend thought I’d injured myself when she saw one of my nails), but everyone who sees them gives them the nod of approval. The best thing about the dots, though, is that they completely take over, and no one seems to notice that I did not inherit my mother’s gorgeous nails.

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Did you get the movie questions? The movie is The Women (1939); the color was Jungle Red. Nars is now making Jungle Red nail polish and matching lipstick. Inspired choice of name!

We had our first readers from Bahrain, Brazil and Lithuania in the past two weeks. We're getting to be so international!

1 comment:

  1. I recently found your blog and I absolutely love reading your posts. I too have an old Kokin hat.