The Unlikely History of Acrylic Nails - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Kylie Jenner owes her inspiration to an unlikely source.

By Joshua Eferighe

  • One of today’s hottest fashion trends owes its start to a dentist fixing a cut on his thumbnail in 1957.
  • Now ubiquitous in pop culture, acrylic nails have for years carried a stigma when worn by Black women.
  • Today’s stars who sport eye-catching nails are drawing on 1990s hip-hop culture.

When Dr. Fred Slack Jr. cut his thumbnail while working in a dental lab in 1957, he did what most medical professionals would do: applied a self-treatment. But this dentist had an innovative solution that went far beyond a mere Band-Aid. Using aluminum foil and dental acrylic, he created a platform to fix the nail, which would soon go on to be patented as the first nail form.

Dr. Fred Slack Jr at the NSI lab.

And so acrylic nails were born. This clear, hardened substance — the same basic material as plexiglass — is made by combining a liquid acrylic product (monomer) with a powdered acrylic product (polymer). Together they form a soft ball that, when molded, can be formed into a nail shape. Dentists already had their hands on such materials. Chicago dentist Maxwell Lappe had created an artificial fingernail for nail biters called Nu Nails in 1934. It just wasn’t thought of for cosmetic purposes until Slack rolled along.

Slack went on to found Nail Systems International (NSI), now one of the largest beauty supply chains in the world, and continued to develop polymer/monomer acrylic systems into the late 1960s, just as the demand for professional manicures, beauty salons and the practice of applying long fake nails became widespread. Air- and heat-activated polish sealant as well as UV-cured gels, standard tools in the nail professional’s arsenal, also owe their origins to this former dentist.

Nowadays, nail care is an $8 billion industry in the U.S. and acrylics are everywhere. Go to the beauty corner of TikTok and you’ll find yourself lost in a rabbit hole of almond-, coffin- and stiletto-shaped nail offerings; 8-inch extensions and ombré color palettes that change from oranges to reds. That doesn’t include the extravagant jewels and other trinkets used to adorn them. Open Instagram and you’ll see pages dedicated to the funkiest of nail styles. On TV, there’s the TNT series Claws (you can guess its theme by now). Be it Cardi B, Selena Gomez, Kehlani or SZA, elongated and boldly designed nails are practically inescapable. 

If you see some of these younger celebrities trying on long bejeweled nails, that looks to the hip-hop scene in the ’90s for inspiration.

Suzanne E. Shapiro, author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure

To the untrained eye and for those who are detached from the culture, these eccentric forms of beauty have only recently sprung up. But nail embroidery is as old as our most ancient artifacts. Egyptian mummies dating to 5,000 B.C. have been found with gilded nails and henna-tinted fingertips. Medieval Irish poems mention crimson nails and in China’s Yuan dynasty (A.D. 1271–1368), both men and women wore long nail guards to protect the long nails underneath.

But we really owe the look we’re seeing today to Black women in the late 1980s and early ’90s who wanted to define style on their terms. Hip-hop and R&B stars like Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott and SWV singer Coko often wore decadent nails in their music videos. And who can forget Janet Jackson sporting acrylics with hoops in each nail in the video for her 1998 hit “What’s It Gonna Be.”

In the 1997 film B.A.P.S., Halle Berry’s character — with over-the-top outfits, gold teeth and bold hairdos — wore acrylics too. “If you see some of these younger celebrities trying on long bejeweled nails, that looks to the hip-hop scene in the ’90s for inspiration,” says Suzanne E. Shapiro, author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure.

Yet, while the look is being praised today — e.g., Kylie Jenner being credited for making long, colorful acrylics a trend — for decades Black women were called tacky, impractical or unprofessional for sporting acrylic nails. Even Florence Griffith Joyner, the U.S. Olympian who still holds world records in the 100– and 200–meter dash that she set in 1988, was questioned about her nails just as much if not more than her heroics on the track.

For Whitney Williams, a 28-year-old event management specialist who lives in Atlanta, “there was definitely a negative stereotype” associated with acrylics. “When I got my nails done for the first time [for my 13th birthday] there were comments made about them,” she says. “Even sometimes now in a professional setting, I hear the occasional, ‘Oh, I don’t know how you work with those,’ or ‘Can you type with those?’”

Kylie Jenner is credited with making long colorful acrylics a trend.
Kylie Jenner is credited with making long colorful acrylics a trend.

According to Shapiro, it’s this mainstreaming of hip-hop culture that led celebrities to adopt acrylic nails, which eventually led to suburban white girls doing it as well. “Whether you want to call it appropriation or appreciation of styles that are more traditionally associated with Black and Latino women, it was something that a lot more cultures were willing to dip into,” Shapiro says. 

And they all owe credit to ancient Egyptian pharaohs and a white dentist from the ’50s.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories