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Work of Art: Suzanne Shapiro on 'Nails' (Q&A w/ event details)

Suzanne Shapiro will present 'Nails' at the Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown on Tuesday, August 12th, at 7 PM as a fundraising event for the Middlesex County Historical Society.

Suzanne Shapiro will appear at the Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown on Tuesday, August 12th, at 7 PM for a fundraiser benefiting the Middlesex County Historical Society. There will be an illustrated lecture by the author followed by a dessert reception and book signing. Copies of Nails will be available for purchase (and inscription) at a discounted price of $25. Tickets cost $20/each and can be purchased from the MCHS by calling 860-346-0746.


Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Suzanne Shapiro.

Ms. Shapiro is the author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure (Prestel Publishing, $29.95). She holds the position of Archive Manager at PVHC Corp. and was formerly a researcher at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A graduate of Vassar College and New York University (M.A. Costume Studies), Ms. Shapiro now makes her home in Brooklyn but has roots in Connecticut.

Nails was published last April. Brooklyn Magazine noted, “In Nails, Shapiro … traces the manicure’s position in society from Egyptian antiquity to the modern-day Tokyo nail expo. She uncovers surprising tidbits … as well as predictions about the industry’s future … With each anecdote, Shapiro’s thesis becomes more apparent: that women’s nails, like our bodies, have always been used as a template on which to inscribe culture, but only recently have they been embraced as a tool for individual expression.”

From the publisher:

This lively, colorful, and wide-ranging exploration of the evolution of the painted nail places a fascinating aspect of cultural history at your fingertips. The manicure as we know it has been around for less than a century, but it's become a major presence in the culture of fashion, with its own trends, fads, and fringe aspects. This first definitive history of the manicure looks at the myriad ways in which the adorned fingernail has served as an expression of the individual and the times. Author Suzanne E. Shapiro traces the origins of the modern manicure as a radical gesture in style and follows it through today's culture of ubiquitous nail salons and edgy experiments in nail art, showing how at every turn the manicure has reflected larger style trends as well as changing ideals of femininity. Nails draws on an incredible range of popcultural images, from early 20th-century beauty manuals and classic Hollywood glamour shots to hip-hop music videos and fine art. It also features gorgeous nail-centric images from iconic fashion photographers including Nickolas Muray, Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton. A series of contemporary photo essays rounds out the volume with an international survey of the most vital pockets of manicure culture today, from hipster nails in London to outré nail art in Tokyo. Unique, accessible, and authoritative, Nails brilliantly connects the painted nail to the history of women's fashion and the evolution of beauty.

Now, Suzanne Shapiro shares the genesis of Nails with readers …

1) What inspired you to write NAILS – and how did the initial interviews that you conducted on the streets of New York City help to shape your narrative?

When I moved to New York City ten years ago, I was struck by the sheer number of nail salons; they’re on practically every block. I wondered when women began to care so deeply about nails as an aspect of beauty and found that no one had really explored the cultural significance of the manicure in great depth. When I began my own research, I quickly realized what a surprisingly rich topic it was—worthy of a graduate thesis and then eventually, a whole book.

Although few of my informal interviews made it into the manuscript, they framed my understanding of the manicure as a deeply personal ritual and style statement. No one thinks of herself as merely a member of a demographic that appreciates extravagant nails. Rather, she’ll tell me about how her nails make her feel special and attractive and help her navigate her unique lifestyle.

2) Tell us about the artwork that accompanies the text: What was the selection process like and how did your roots with The Metropolitan Museum of art benefit the project? Also, how do you feel that imagery enhances the story?

As an NYU graduate student then museum researcher, my access to recently-digitized collections like the Vogue Archive proved invaluable, and I gained permission to reproduce several Met Museum artworks as well. I also found marvelous images in library special collections across the country, in person at the Condé Nast archives, and sometimes quite serendipitously, flipping through records and popular magazines found at stoop sales and the like. Choosing illustrations has its challenges, in terms of costs and copyright permissions, but I tend to value everyday advertising images and documentary photography as much as big-ticket fashion photos. They all fit together to depict the lived experience and aspirations of the everywoman.

3) Though the manicure is less than a century old, it has become a major presence in the culture of fashion. Why do you believe it to have been so impactful – and how does, or can, one’s manicure serve as an extension of the self?

Prevailing nail fashions often share an uncanny visual affinity with other aesthetics of the day, literally inscribing a woman’s culture onto her body. Yet the basic properties of nail polish have given it an easy appeal through the decades. For starters, it adds jewel-like color to the hands for hardly any cost; imparts fairly reliable results, versus other “miracle” creams and cosmetics; and remains one-size-fits-all regardless of the wearer’s age and body type. Its cultural association with certain identities and personality types is actually a virtue, as is its impermanence. The manicure is a singular site where a woman can define herself one day, rub it all off, and start anew the next.

4) Through an exploration of the manicure’s evolution throughout history, you are able to make the case that it has also been used as a reflection of societal changes. Can you give an example of this – and tell us why something so seemingly simple can have such profound implications?

Yes, the link between nail fashions and women’s changing values is quite remarkable. For example, bright and deep colors of nail polish were considered risqué when they first appeared in the 1920s and early ‘30s. This style statement suited the generation of young women who dared to dress more provocatively, drink with the boys, and challenge other mores. Through the century, painted manicures became a well accepted part of beauty, but still managed to reflect new feminine ideals. As another example, French manicures and other understated styles worked well for the career women of the ‘80s who wanted to convey a certain professional polish. Because hands are so public and expressive, any stylistic choice (or lack thereof) communicates a clear intention.

5) How does pop culture influence the public’s perception of the manicure – and where do you see trends heading in the near future?

Since the inception of the painted manicure, pop culture has served up self-conscious commentary, with winking references in literature and lyrics, for example. But I’ve observed our perception of the manicure growing increasingly “meta”. Several movies have parodied the perhaps-inflated role of manicures in our lives. And now, there’s a “mani-cam” at red carpet events that chronicles and sends up our obsession with celebrity nail fashions. Even if we can laugh at this preoccupation, I seriously doubt that our love for the modern manicure will wane. Regardless of its motivation, the beauty industry understands the need for novel products that keep the ritual fresh and exciting. More and more, everyone wants a look that is uniquely “her”, and today’s endless array of colors and applied adornments seems to deliver.


With thanks to Suzanne Shapiro for her generosity of time and thought and to Samantha Waller, Publicist at Prestel Publishing, for helping to facilitate this interview.

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