The 1920’s were a hugely volatile time. Everything- all the rules were changing. Women’s right to vote in the US was ratified in early 1920. The first birth control was available. Fashion was changing at a pace that was actually terrifying people– let’s face it, my Mom as a teenager in the 60’s wore blue jeans and t-shirts, although she had ridiculous bell bottoms and fringe vests. I wore blue jeans and t-shirts in the 90’s, although with unfortunate embroidery. My teenage daughter? Every day she goes to school in blue jeans and t-shirts, although she’s one of the lucky ones that actually looks great in skinny jeans, so it’s not an unfortunate trend for her. Not all that much has changed.
If you were coming to age in the 1920’s, your Grandma dressed like this:
Your Mom dressed like this:
And you dressed like this:
In the same amount of time we went from bell bottom jeans, to regular jeans, back to bell bottoms, and now skinny jeans- really, not that huge of a fashion shift- these women went from hoop skirts and bonnets, to corsets and ankle-to-neck coverage, to what is, at it’s core, functionally modern fashion.
Remember, less than 15 years before this, women could be shunned out of polite society and have rumors whispered about their loose, possibly French, morals for having finger nails slightly too long. Look at that picture! These girls aren’t wearing corsets, some of them aren’t wearing gloves, and for the love of God, YOU CAN SEE THEIR KNEES. When they walk they might show a little thigh! And no corsets, and bias cut shirts- there’s visible nipplage! And they’re making men’s jackets for them! And there’s no petticoats! They’re wandering around showing a ton of skin and not wearing any freaking underwear…
And EVERYONE IS DOING IT!
Grandma’s generation put ruffled dust cover things over the table legs, lest the sight of a well turned table leg make a man think of a woman’s leg and lead to inappropriate sexual thoughts, AND HERE ARE ACTUAL GIRL LEGS OUT IN THE OPEN. Before the 1920’s nice girls showed zero skin, often the only skin you would see was their face, since summer gloves were a thing, unless you were in a risque ball gown and HEAVILY supervised. The corset had been a mainstay of western Women’s fashion for over 800 years at this point. And these nice, normal girls were wearing things that street corner hookers wouldn’t have worn less than 30 years before.
So people were legit, freaking the fuck out.
Then there were the changes in hair styles- for the first time women’s hair went short, and people lost their damn minds over bob haircuts. No, really. There were opinion pieces in newspapers saying it was the end of civilization.
So, onto this already crazy world, let’s add something we take for granted now that was a huge, scary deal- makeup and nail polish. Before the 1920’s, makeup was reserved for stage actresses, who were normally prostitutes, and actual prostitutes. It was a signal that you were probably willing to trade money for sex. Things like rubbing berries into your nails and lips to stain them pink was done, but it was a shameful act that you hid. In the 20’s makeup was explicitly to draw attention (which, ya know, was previously considered vulgar) and women were putting rouge on their knees- which was flat out saying LOOK AT THESE GAMS!
Think of wearing any sort of makeup in the early 1920’s as the modern equivalent of thigh high boots, fishnet stockings, booty shorts, and a bikini top. You just don’t see normal, every day people dressed like that to go to the grocery store. So if your daughter and all her friends started dressing that way, you might panic a bit.
So when the first real, opaque nail polish came onto the scene, some people treated it as if there was something deeply, deeply wrong with the women who chose to wear it.
But there were still objections to (nail) polish. In 1934, Dr. Karl A. Menninger of Topeka, Kan., argued before the American Psychiatric Association that “bobbed hair and tinted nails” were self-mutilations as serious as cutting and anorexia. In 1937, a racist vacationer named George L. Massy wrote to the editor of the London Times: “Sir — I am credibly informed that the reason why some ladies stain their fingernails is in order to conceal the traces of black blood that otherwise would be discernible there.”
Like most men objecting to women’s fashion, the older white guys in power were not able to hold back the tide, but there was a lot of anger. There was a huge desire for things to go back to the way they were before the First World War, but that was about as likely to happen as being able to put a baby back in the mother after delivery. There was a generation gap more intense than anything we have seen since, and the fight to be modern- work, wear modern clothes, hair, makeup and nail polish- was an actual fight.
The push back from the older women against nail polish was more effective. There were accusations that you would only wear nail polish if you were filthy, unhygienic, and had dirt caked under your nails and couldn’t be bothered to clean them.
Which lead to a nail trend that will likely never come back, unlike the gorgeous sheer pinks of the 1910’s.
Beatrice Kay, the manicurist at MGM movie studios who popularised this look on the silver screen, and thus spread it across the globe, dubbed the look the “moon manicure.”
UUUUUGH. The Full Moon Manicure.
It’s a band of nail polish that left the moon at the base of the nails unpainted, as well as the free edge of the nail unpainted, to prove your nails weren’t dirty underneath. In the ads it’s hard to tell- the nail tips are WHITE, but that’s supposed to make them look sharp, modern, and hygienic. There wasn’t white nail polish available. This was also a decade before the first base layer was invented, so it was just a weird swoop of color across the middle of the nail.
There’s a better quality picture of the manicure here but it’s still… erm….
There is a good reason this is a nail art trend that is probably never coming back (I hope). Like the duck foot nails and bubble nails, it won’t come back because it does not actually look good.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, I mean, honestly if the people who have them are happy I don’t give a fuck, it’s just not my aesthetic at all and I’d never have them. Perhaps I’m being too judgemental by thinking that duck foot nails are freaking ugly and ridiculous. I mean, they were super trendy for a while there, and they seem to make some women feel beautiful, so maybe I should give them another shot…
I can appreciate what the Full Moon Manicure did for the history of nail polish, and frankly the half moon manicure is one of my favorites, ever. I appreciate that it was literally and figuratively a big pink middle finger to the people who were trying to shove women back into a box where they had no voice, no vote, no ability to work, no independence, and no choices. And the women who did this and came up with it, they were the very first to explore this new stuff called nail polish- there wasn’t anyone else who had done it before to give them tips or show them the way. This was the cultural experiment that lead to nail polish being an accepted thing.
I get all that.
I still think the half moon manicure is ugly. There, I said it. I don’t like it.
Any time I do 1920’s costuming, I cheat and do the 1930’s to 1940’s version instead.
The natural, or nude half moon at the bottom of the nail with a contrasting color on top really does make your fingers look longer, slimmer and more elegant. It’s a fantastic manicure, and most people don’t know enough about history and costuming to know the truth, my secret shame- I choose it because I can’t stand her ugly older sister, the full moon mani.