Nail’Lore: Tracing The Origins Of Nail Art For Black Women

June 17, 2024

In one 2024 Sprite campaign photo, only Sha’Carri Richardson’s torso is visible. She’s wearing a racing bib on top of a green two-piece set. Her hands, gently placed on her hips, are jazzed up with long nails, a beauty style that’s become closely associated with her. Early on, her nails earned her comparisons to late Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner, a juxtaposition she embraced. “Y’all love talking about my hair & my nails like the greatest woman to ever enter the game didn’t run in style,” Richardson wrote on Instagram in 2019. She was taking a swipe at commentators who were quick to call her nails “ghetto.” Long nails, acrylic and natural, aren’t a recent development. Nor is the judgment of them.


LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 17: Track and field athlete Sha’Carri Richardson poses during the Team USA Paris 2024 Olympic Portrait Shoot at NBC Universal Studios Stage 16 on November 17, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Ancient African mummies dating back to 5,000 B.C. have been discovered with golden nails. Two thousand years later, Egyptian women were also wearing artificial nails crafted out of ivory and bone. As for the past 100 years, you can observe a photo of Queen Nenzima of the Mangbetu tribe in modern day Congo. She’s shown with her index and middle fingers pressed into her face, as if she’s in deep thought. Her nails are dark, long and have clearly been filed into a sharp point. Nails have been indicative of social status, with only the most elite, and those who did not perform manual labor, being able to wear them, or have colored nails at all. 

Nails, particularly their length and design, have socio-political implications, too. They’ve been at the forefront of discussions about class/financial status and beauty ideals, with white-obsessive questioning often being the reason why. Short, manicured nails with nude polish are seen as kempt and thus more socially acceptable. They are one of the key factors to achieving the 2020’s “clean girl aesthetic,” indirectly presenting longer nails with more ornate decorations as dirty and associated with Blackness. The trend, and the desire to appear polished, comes from European beauty techniques and tendencies. “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a woman showed a well-mannered sophistication by tending to her soft, natural-looking hands,” wrote Suzanne E. Shapiro in Nails: The Story of Modern Medicine. This idea is also present in Millian Kang’s The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work, which reads, “French manicures and pastel colors signal white, middle-class, heteronormative, feminine beauty. Whereas sculptured, airbrushed nails are markers of Black, poor, sexually deviant, and marginalized femininity.”

One nail expert confirms this with a first-hand account. “When you think about back in the day, what was considered clean and put together, you think of short, nude, extremely, manicured to the point where there’s no personality to the nails, right?,” asks Gracie J, a celebrity nail tech and the founder of The Editorial Nail. “Within my adolescence, I did go to school in Haiti, and of course we know that Haiti was once colonized by the French. Once you have a space that has been colonized by a certain group of people, there are remnants of that culture, of their ideologies, that still remain there.” 

These ideas are reinforced in our community and beyond, leading Black women to feel bad about a harmless style preference. “Y’all shorty’s with the long colorful nails look mad dirty,” wrote one Black X (formerly known as Twitter) user in June 2024. Awkward, public comments about Black women’s nails have also come from figures like journalists Gay Talese and Charlie Rose, contributing to long, intricately decorated nails to become an act of defiance against white norms and a marker of pride in cultural identity.  

Nails, either their natural growth or via a full set of acrylics, have also become a coming of age ritual, as well as a form of self-expression. Gracie J mentions not being able to wear acrylic nails until she turned 18. As moodboard-worthy her nails have become, record setter Griffith-Joyner wasn’t looking to be anyone’s style guide. “Griffith Joyner is quick to point out that she didn’t choose her racing styles to revolutionize anybody’s view of women,” wrote Kenny Moore in a 1989 Sports Illustrated profile. “She has, since childhood, simply pleased herself by wildly altering her appearance.” Her nails, and ones like them, told the story of one’s origin. 

In the 1950s, dentist Fred Slack Jr. created the baseline for the artificial nail process we use today. Over the next decade, nails became more common, though they were mostly kept nude-colored and short, in line with both the trend and the respectability politics of the civil rights movement. As the preoccupation with the white gaze dwindled, we began to see more women, including Coretta Scott King, Shirley Chisholm, Tina Turner and Diana Ross wear red polish – a daring act for the time. 

Under a few Black, Pentecostal denominations, like the Church of God in Christ, women have been taught not to wear makeup or polish their nails. Red polish in particular is especially frowned upon for its association with Jezebel. The Phoneician queen was noted for her “rebellious” lifestyle, sensuality, makeup and the control she exerted over her husband, making her the most hated woman in the Bible. (It must be noted that there is no mention of her wearing nail polish in the Bible.) “[W]hy was red considered the color of Jezebel? I would always hear that growing up. We couldn’t wear red nails or lipstick to church, in the choir stand,” wrote singer Michelle Williams in 2022. The inaccurate association bred the thought that long nails, and the color red, were symbols of sexuality and defiance. 

In a 2014 video interview with StyleBlazer, SWV’s Cheryl “Coko” Gamble talked about her trademark nails. Her mother was devoutly religious and saw long as unholy. “I grew my nails out, and I didn’t know they were going to grow out that long,” the singer said. “I grew them out just to get on my mother’s nerves and she was like, You’re going to hell.” Once Gamble joined the girl group in the late 80s, she says the nails “took on a life of their own.” Though she wore a mix of her own nails and acrylics, like Griffith Joyner, she has become a leading influence for the generations that followed. 



Starting in the 1970s and throughout the 1990s, coinciding with the childhoods of Williams and Gamble, nail extensions and press ons reached a creative peak with ongoing influence. The longer the nails, the better. Intricacy was gaining appeal as well. “Around the way girls” were becoming mainstream music artists and as they rose to the top, they took their neighborhood trends with them. Roxanne Shanté, Salt-N-Pepa, and Foxy Brown were just a few of the rap stars whose nails became a special part of their persona. They typically wore muti-inch, square tips, with either french manicures, solid colors, or airbrushed patterns. The everyday working woman may not have been able to afford the jewels, cars and high-priced clothes some women were rapping about, but their nails were one way to get in on the opulence. “[It] also allowed us to have little moments and pockets of luxury and things that we could do to express identity, to feel good about ourselves, to pamper ourselves,” Gracie J says. 

Nails have become a meta statement. Black women are acutely aware of what white people and strict predecessors have thought about them and use their creativity to reject those notions. What nails represent now is an announcement of personal preference, cultural expression and that pushback. There is an intense reverence for the women of the late 20th century who were considered less than for their beauty preferences. The criticism persists but the particular and public sense of pride never fades.