These days $1.25 will barely get you a slice of pizza and a cold drink in New York City, but In 1873 it could get you a fresh manicure at Mrs. Cobb’s Manicure Parlor. Mary Cobb, an original female entrepreneur and #bosslady, founded her first salon on West 23rd Street, serving a multitude of women, from society’s elite to the city’s most notorious call girls. What historically started as a luxury intended only for the upper class has since trickled down to the masses, evolving into the cultural phenomenon it is now.
Today’s nail salon industry is expanding at a rapid pace. It’s fitting that NYC is home to one of the first nail salons; walk a few blocks in any of the five boroughs and you’re bound to catch a glimpse of someone’s freshly buffed cuticles or glittery top coats. Visit any other major city in the world and you’ll find a similar sight. It’s as if nails are a universal language that can communicate volumes about each person and even reflect the world’s ever-changing social environment.
During The Great Depression, bright nail colors were worn as an emblem of hope amidst the country’s dark and economically frustrating time period. In the 1980s, the popularization of upbeat music and maximalist neon color clothing fads ushered in crazier and more electric polish colors than anyone had seen before.
Thanks to the popularization of nail art, plus 20th-century innovations like acrylics and potent polish formulas, manicures are accessible to the masses now more than ever. Today’s cuticle aficionados can flock to their local salons to get pimped out nails no matter which end of the spectrum their budget lies.
While some salons may offer a decent mani-pedi for as low as $19.99, others such as Shen Beauty, located in Cobble Hill Brooklyn, run a whopping $85 for a pedicure, as reported by the New York Times (link). With luxury accommodations and treatments performed by professionally trained technicians, Shen’s medical pedicure, which utilizes single-use instruments, offers customers a meticulous and thorough spa experience Type-A personalities fantasize about.
Although $85 is a lot to spend on such a non-essential indulgence, even as a treat yo self splurge. Social media may be the driving force that’s motivating some girls to shell out nearly a week’s pay, or in some cases even more, for these extravagant nail treatments. In the Insta-age, internet users are obsessed with flaunting what they’ve got and using social media to do it. Scroll through the explore page of Instagram and you’ll see pics of influencers decked out in designer duds racking up hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of likes.
What social media also provides is reach. Nowadays, anyone with ambition and data to spare can aspire to internet fame and grow a following. Evidently, the benefits are more than plentiful. Social media influencers can make serious bank based on how many followers they have when brands want to contract sponsored content from them. Though the FTC has since developed stricter rules on disclosing sponsored content, brands still pay their “partners” with perks such as free products, trips or generous bank account deposits.
Girls even assume a competitive spirit in an attempt to claw their way to the top of the innovative manicure pyramid. It seems that excess amounts of time, money, and thought invested into the process translates to more virtual praise and validation, something so many seek through their social media use today. Social media or not, nail lovers curate an identity, which they parallel through their nail decor. During the 2012 Olympic games, British swimmer Rebecca Adlington memorably sported a union jack manicure to profess her English patriotism (and went home with two bronze medals!).
amivnails #BlackIsBeautiful. ✊ #nailart #handpainted #gelpolish #ignails #naillife #amivega
Some of the more recent trends among the manicure community include socially aware, or ‘woke’ nails, including Black Lives Matter, and Pro Choice themed decorations with mini-movement emblems painted on each fingertip. Coincidentally, social awareness and cultural appropriation were called into question this past January when social media users called out Vogue magazine for whitewashing nail art and attempting to rebrand it as “manicure sculptures.”
Many accused the magazine of being ‘culture vultures,’ as well as finding fault in the magazine’s failure to acknowledge nail art’s historical roots. Specifically, that the nail embellishment techniques they were reporting as seemingly new innovations had been practiced by African American beauticians for decades.
Nail representation in the media is also illustrated in today’s popular television programs and film. The Rashida Jones executive produced series Claws, on TNT, is a beacon for nail aficionados, as the show follows salon owner Desna (played by Niecy Nash) and her crew’s involvement with organized crime in South Florida. Nails have become their own fixture on the show and important in describing each character’s personality and emotional response to struggle and triumph.
A character’s nail change can be used to poetically track their personal growth within storylines. “It’s a little bit of a calling card without having to say anything,” said Nash in a recent interview.
While studying and interviewing beat cops for her role as Rosa Diaz, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz encountered several female officers with what she described as “serious nails,” a quirk she both admired and respected. Beatriz also enjoys a decadent manicure, something she occasionally displays on her personal Instagram account.
In an interview, she recently described that after Nine-Nine’s tragic cancellation by FOX and subsequent save by NBC, she treated herself to a manicure. “Some people go to fancy dinners, I get my nails done,” she said. A personal manicurist came to Beatriz’ home to complete said extravagant nail treatment, which cost the actress a whopping $200.
stephaniebeatriz 💅🏽💕 fresh set by @dolly_nailss
Unfortunately, not all nail establishments uphold high standards of employee treatment and operate under borderline inhumane and cruel work conditions. In 2015, The New York Times published an expose uncovering the gross injustices that several manicurists face, including low wages, long hours and in some cases, verbal or physical abuse.
The Times also reported that in its first-ever inspection of nail salons, which took place in 2015, officials found 116 wage violations in just 29 New York salons. In addition to targeting and exploiting young women of color, predominantly those of Asian and Hispanic heritage, nail salons are able to charge cheap prices to customers which they counteract with the startlingly low wages they pay their workers.
Not only does the manicure industry possess structural and abuse problems, but the environmental effects are also substantial. Potential health risks include chemical exposure potentially face by nail polish manufacturers, salon workers and clients. Creating nail polish also adds to global air and water pollution as well as the world’s landfill problem.
Government agencies such as the environmental protection agency and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have proactively published research and suggestions on the importance of health safety in the workplace. These include protecting workers from the dangerous effects of chemicals found in common nail care products such as different types of formaldehyde.
Even though there are many things the nail industry has done wrong, there’s also a therapeutic aspect of the whole process. Manicurist are often portrayed as more than just cuticle professionals. They’re a shoulder to cry on and there to lend you a sympathetic ear. When Elle Woods gets to Harvard Law School only to realize the ex-boyfriend she’s trying to win back is engaged, it’s her manicurist and soon-to-be bestie Pauline who helps her spring into action.
Similarly, Claws depicts Desna’s clients venting and confiding to their manicurists about their issues and frustrations. As one visibly heart-stricken and disgruntled customer tells the tale of her cheating boyfriend, she seemingly forgets about her heartache as she admires the extravagant manicure Desna completes for her.
Manicures are more than a mere beauty treatment. They’re art, completed on a miniscule canvas by artists who possess infinite patience and painstaking attention to detail. They’re a reflection of the time and social climate we live in, as well as a means of self expression that communicates our truest selves. For some, the salon is a place where you can vent to a caring confidant. It’s somewhere to pick yourself up once you’ve fallen down and armor yourself for the battle ahead, finding strength at the tips of your fingers.
Balling on a budget? Look no further, here's our thrift shop guide!