Story at a glance
- The recent rise in popularity of “male polish” isn’t anything the world hasn’t seen before, and men have been coloring their nails for thousands of years.
- Nail polish in ancient Babylon is thought to have represented different classes, and warriors painted their nails to “intimidate their enemies.”
- “MANicures” now are often celebrated for their association with gender fluidity and male self-care and grooming.
After Brad Pitt arrived at the Palm Springs Film Festival in 2015 flashing a rainbow manicure, lifestyle magazine Elle lobbed a question at its readers: “are ‘MAN’icures becoming a thing?”
The answer: It’s complicated. Yes, an increasing number of highly visible men are now sporting what some refer to as “male polish,” but men coloring their nails really isn’t anything new. In fact, if you think “MANicures” are something entirely novel, you’re about 5,500 years too late.
According to a 2018 paper from the University of Rochester Medical Center, men have been coloring their nails since at least 3500 B.C., in ancient Babylon.
“Babylonian male warriors adorned their nails with ground minerals as part of a pre-battle ritual designed to intimidate their enemies,” researcher Jeanette Zambito wrote.
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Nail polish is thought to have represented different classes at that time — the darker the color, the higher the class. There’s evidence that primitive forms of polish, made from materials like henna, flower petals and beeswax, were also worn by ancient Egyptians and Chinese, regardless of gender.
It is not exactly known when nail polish became associated strictly with femininity, but by the 1800s, Victorian era women were painting their nails to signify purity and cleanliness.
“Male polish” returned with a vengeance in the 1960s with the rise of counterculture, popularized by artists like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie (the latter of whom was revered for his “androgynous” alter ego, Ziggy Stardust).
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was also seen sporting painted nails through the early 1990s, though an Esquire writer once commented that his red nail varnish was “badly chipped.”
Now, at a time when gender fluidity is often celebrated and more men are encouraged to engage in self care, male stars like Harry Styles, A$AP Rocky, Machine Gun Kelly, Tyler the Creator, and Lil Yachty not only color their own nails, but have also launched their own successful nail polish lines, bringing “male polish” back into the mainstream.
Styles in November launched his gender-neutral beauty brand, Pleasing, which includes a number of plant-based nail polish shades inspired by pearls, which the singer frequently wears.
“It’s starting with nail polish, because that was kind of the birth of what it was for,” Styles said in an interview with the British magazine Dazed. “Me seeing a color on a flower or a wallpaper or something and thinking, ‘Oh, I wanna put that on my nails.’”
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