I was what you’d call masochistic in my final year of high school. I lived like an ascetic monk, eating porridge and sleeping on a mattress in the study, and wrote so many notes and practice exams that the skin on my hands eventually cracked and bled. I had to cover them in plasters for my exams lest any red smears detract from my words. So by the time of my celebratory trip to Paris later that year, serious pampering à la Parisienne was in order.
I had booked myself a manicure appointment, at a beauty salon located just behind the Champs-Elysées, up near the Arc de Triomphe. It was no ordinary nail bar. After stepping through the gilt-trimmed doors, into the rose-scented atmosphere, I was ushered over to a brocade-covered armchair.
‘Une coupe de champagne, mademoiselle?’
That would be a oui. The drinking age in France at the time was, conveniently, sixteen.
The manicurist soon returned, perched herself on a velvet stool, and placed a silver tray, topped with myriad bottles of red and pink nail polish and a flute of champagne, on the gilded table between us.
‘Rouge ou rose?’ asked Madame Manucuriste.
Would it be possible to instead have une manucure française?
‘Mais non!’ she exclaimed, sensibilities clearly offended. ‘Ce n’est pas du tout chic.’
Confused, I opted for pink, and it wasn’t until much later, in my beauty writing days, that I discovered why to so-called French manicure — where glossy pink nails are tipped with a thick white line — is not actually French at all.
The father of the French manicure is an American – the suitably named Jeff Pink, founder of Orly Nail Care. In 1976, Pink’s main gig was as a Hollywood-favoured cosmetics supplier. His first step into beauty legend status came when a director asked him to devise a nail look that would complement any number of outfit changes – back in these pre-special-effects days, an actress had to have her polish repainted to match each new dress, a process that held up filming for more than one hour (these were also the pre-quick-dry days).
Pink searched high and low through his warehouse for a solution. “I came upon a white nail pencil, which women applied underneath their nails to make them look nice and clean,” Pink told me several years ago. “It got me thinking about what effect could be achieved by painting tips with a white polish instead, and then applying a flesh-toned polish on top to tone down the whiteness.”
Pink and a manicurist friend tested the theory. The result was elegantly simple; Pink christened it The Natural Nail Look. “I rang a nail polish manufacturer to order five gallons of white polish,” he says. “I was laughed at – at the time you could only buy basic colours like red and brown.” Pink persevered, got his five gallons of white polish, and presented his new nail technique to the director, who proclaimed him a ‘genius.’ In little time, most Hollywood directors were ordering their actresses to get this Natural Nail Look.
With the very modern thinking that consumers would follow celebrity suit, Pink decided to package up a base coat, top coat, white polish and flesh polish as a do-it-yourself kit, aka the Orly Natural Nail Look Kit. Frustratingly, sales were non-existent. Pink was flummoxed. After all, everyone who tried the style fell for it. It was even a hit at a 1977 Paris fashion show, where the models were treated to one of Pink’s manicures. It was on the journey home from Paris that Pink decided to rebrand. “I renamed it the French Manicure,” he says. “Of course, nobody in France knew what it was, but American women believed the product came from France. By 1980 it was beginning to become really popular.”
The rest is beauty history, although you can imagine that the branding of the look as French was at first a little galling for the Gauls, but the French have managed to take the look in hand, so to speak, and make it appear so classic-chic as to live up to its name on such catwalks as Chanel. And anyway, what it does prove is that women the world over usually fall for anything à la française.