CT Native Knows All About Pretty Nails

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20140523-125453.jpgIt’s official: Manicure and pedicure season has arrived. And lest you think painting one’s nails is a vanity-driven, ho hum practice for women with nothing better to do, think again. A former Middletown resident who is now a researcher at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Shapiro has written the first definitive history of the manicure, tracing its origins that date back centuries. Shapiro takes a creative look at the art of the manicure and how nail polish design and color reflects trends as well as the changing ideals of femininity in her book “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure.”  Her nails looked great, while mine, not so much so, as she Spilled the Beans With Java.
Q: Why a book on nails?
A: It was actually the topic of my graduate thesis in costume studies at NYU. I got thinking about the subject when I moved to the city. I was awestruck at all the nail salons that are here and how many products there are. It made me wonder ‘when did this start, when did it becomes such an important aspect of beauty to women?’ And no one had ever really written about it. So it started academically and then the nail culture grew more vibrant. I am lucky to have a friend in publishing who saw the potential in the topic and they took what ended up being my book.
Q: You grew up here in Connecticut and graduated from Middletown High School in 2000. Were you a girly girl growing up, you know, the kind of kiddo that wanted polish on her nails?
A: I really wasn’t. My mom wasn’t a big fan of nail polish so it wasn’t part of the way I was raised. But I started using it a little when I got older. In high school in the 90s, the most popular color for us was Revlon’s Vixen, kind of a dark purple red that at the time seemed like an edgy statement. It’s all I wore.
Q: Besides the obvious aesthetic, what is it about painting our nails that is so appealing?
A: It is a bonding thing. Something that old and young can appreciate. It is one of the few beauty rituals that have similar results whether you are five or 95. It is predictable, it doesn’t matter if you are thin or curvy or what your cultural heritage is. It’s one size fits all. And it’s a beauty product more women are likely to take a risk with based on the season or the dress you’re wearing. I can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first went to a salon to have my nails done but I asked the tech to put a strip of gold color when she was doing mine. The women on both sides of me saw it and wanted the same thing and before I knew it, we were having this lovely conversation about nails and weekend plans. That experience struck me. I saw the salon as being this interesting feminine space.
Q: Do you have your nails done now?
A: Sometimes I do them myself and usually I have them done at a salon. I have a great nail artist now named Naomi Yasuda. She has become a friend and does incredible works of art on nails.
Q: Describe your nails now?
A: I have an interesting geometric modernist argyle pattern in seas green, periwinkle blue, black white and clear. I think the patterns that are so popular now show how interesting nail culture has become. Naomi is from Japan and has made a fabulous career for herself and does nails of A-list celebrities. Nail art is a real career path for artistic people. It’s not an afterthought anymore.
Q: As you researched the book, what surprised you most?
A: I loved finding surprisingly early instances of nail art. I found a picture of an American stage actress in 1900 whose nails were pierced with dangling diamonds, and a time when the fad was for young girls to decoupage their boyfriends’ pictures on their nails and a patent from a suburban housewife in Ohio who was invented nail appliqués. Even in the Great Depression and during rationing in World War II nail polish provided the affordable quick pick me up. Even in the economy now, people talk about how lipstick and nail polish sales are healthy, even during hard times.
Q: So when it comes to the manicure, a little vanity is a good thing?
A: It’s a positive in terms of independence. Manicures, pedicures, they bring women together. You walk into a salon and you see perfect strangers talking about nail colors. It brings women together. There is an organization called “GlamourGals” that pairs up teenaged volunteers who provide beauty treatments like manicures to elderly women in assisted living facilities. It’s wonderful in so many ways, the sense of touch, the fact that these elderly women feel more beautiful after their nails are painted, the social interaction. It goes beyond beauty. And there is fun aspect.
Q: I understand your book prompted OPI to name a nail polish after you. What color is it?
A: It was a fun promotion they offered when I took a factory tour. The polish is kind of a watermelon red and is called “Switchboard Starlet.” I consider it a kind of tribute to the first generation of nail painting women of the 1930s, the working woman in America who made nail polish as aspect of beauty and to the ladies of the silver screen who made it popular. I pass out bottles when I do book-related events.
Q: Your funniest nail stories?
A: I had an older sister and she knew a little more about style when we were teenagers. Revlon’s “Vixen” was the cheaper version of Chanel’s “Vamp” which was hugely popular and very in fashion wise. And even though we both had different styles and tastes, we both loved that nail polish. We would do our nails and no matter what we were doing we would be holding our hands up to our face to show off the color to everyone. It was kind of a funny bonding, I guess. Then there is the story of two friends who wanted the real Chanel version of the color so they pooled their money to buy a bottle and shared custody of it.
Q: Something most people don’t know about you?
A: I used to babysit for former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz’s son and  daughters. I don’t recall Susan ever wearing nail polish. I think there was a more subdued elegance about her. But her oldest daughter Ava is a huge nail art aficionado and came to one of the opening events for my book.

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