Back in the era of Deco and Depression and FDR, ladies who did paint their fingernails didn't generally paint their fingernails the whole way. Wouldn't you like to know their secrets?
As this excellent post on the (sadly, apparently now defunct) Art Deco blog The Painted Woman points out, "In the early-mid '30s, women usually only painted the center of the nail, leaving the half-moon cuticle and tips bare with the underside tinted with a nail-white pencil or cream." It's the "moon manicure": like a French manicure in reverse, in a bold color, without all the Jersey Shore associations of a pink-and-white French. (Yes, I will silently judge your tacky manicure. Bite me.)
What polish colors were popular in the '30s, you ask? According to the Painted Woman, "All reds — from rosy to deep crimson — were popular, of course. But it isn't true that 'they' didn't wear pink in the 30s. Pinks were very much seen, as were nice peachy-browns and tawny colors that looked nice with suntans (the concept of changing one's make-up according to the season was not unknown to 30s women). Cutex color choices in 1932 were Natural, Rose, Coral, Cardinal, and Colorless. Revlon colors introduced for the summer of 1935 included 'Sun Rose' and 'Chestnut.' Cutex named the 'smartest colors' for 1936 as Rose, Ruby, and Rust...wild colors such as green, blue, black, and gold were indeed available."
Since the '30s heydey, versions of the moon manicure have turned up on the runway and on the nails of those cool, effortlessly vintage-y girls I try not to feel overwhelmingly envious of on sight. This manicure is a little fiddly to achieve, but with a bit of patience, I got my moons down. Also, can I have that evening gown on the right? Thanks!
You're going to need: hole reinforcers (you can use actual French manicure stick-on guides, but hole reinforcers from a stationery shop are good and cheap); a base coat of your choice (I use Nail Envy by OPI, an allegedly "strengthening" and "nourishing" base coat, more out of superstition/the conviction that at least it is not maybe hurting my nails than out of any firm belief in its effectiveness); two colors of polish; and a top coat of your choice (Sally Hansen Insta-Dri in my case, your mileage mary vary); and polish remover.
First, prep for your manicure. The steps that come before the first stroke of base coat go a long way to determining the durability of your polish. Soak your hands and scrub any dead skin away. Tidy up your cuticles, then clean, trim, and shape your nails. While this manicure looks awesome with long, pointy old-fashioned style nails, keeping your nails short decreases the likelihood of your polish chipping.
Do not apply any products containing oil to your skin or nails prior to your manicure. Wait, I hear you saying, 'But...but...Jenna, polish can strip your nails of moisture, and healthy nails=moisturized nails! How can I moisturize my nails between drying manicures without, um, moisturizer?' Here's what I do, when I can be bothered to remember: I remove my old polish at night (most of the time I peel it off, I don't even use remover, I'm so bad, bite me x2). Then I rub gobs of castor oil all over my nails and cuticles, put socks over my hands, laugh at my mitt-hands, pour a drink, laugh at myself trying to drink the drink with my pathetic mitt-hands, think highly original thoughts about Edward-Scissorhands, watch some Netflix, forget about everything else, and fall asleep. Next morning, I remove the socks; no more mitt-hands. Whenever I get around to painting my nails, my hands are moisturized, and I wash any residual oil off with soap and water. Oil, if present, will interfere with the adherence of the polish to your nail, causing chips. I believe this to be true because my cousin, who does nails to put herself through college, says so. She's 19 and a full-time student and the manager of the salon where she works, she knows from nails, okay. (Hi cousin!)
Now for the actual nail painting: Apply your base coat. And then apply the color you want your "moons" to be, over the bottoms of your nails like so. I opted to use an ancient Estée Lauder pearly pink I think my mum got free with a lipstick eons ago. I had never up until this point used it for anything other than stopping up runs in my stockings.
While your polish is drying, trim your hole reinforcers into narrower curves. (I mean, this step is optional, but I think having moons that are scaled to the width of your individual nails makes sense, aesthetically.) When your polish is completely dry, apply the hole reinforcers to each nail. A good guide for moon depth is to have the edge of the center hole hit right at your cuticle.
Then apply your main polish color. I went for a burgundy shade by Essie. I chose not to leave the tip-stripes that some true '30s ladies had. You do you. Now, I'll be completely honest: the hole reinforcers did not work for me exactly as I'd hoped. I had some issues with incomplete reinforcer-adherence, which led to some unfortunate seepage of the burgundy onto the moons. I used remover on a Q-tip to clean up, and lightly re-applied the pearl polish in a few instances. If you have a steady hand, you could forgo guides, and paint the curves of your moons freehand.
Two more tips for a lasting manicure, again courtesy of my cousin: use the freshest polish you can, because nail polishes are full of volatile chemicals that begin evaporating as soon as the bottle is opened, changing the characteristics of the polish inside. (You cannot, contrary to rumor, restore an old, thickened bottle of polish to health by adding a few drops of remover to it, although they do sell nail polish refresher solutions at beauty-supply stores. Never experimented with any of 'em myself.) And two: leave your thumbs 'til last. That way you can use your thumbnails to clean up polish mistakes on your opposite hand, improving your application immensely. And an even application is an even manicure is a long-lasting manicure.
And then, when you're all done with the rest of your manicure, do your thumbs. Ta-da.
Apply your top coat, let it dry, rub some oil or moisturizer into your cuticles, and voilà. I thought these colors looked cool against a dusty rose pink dress, since that's a very '30s color. (At least, the dress is dusty rose when not photographed in full evening sunlight.) Now go enjoy the compliments you'll get on your eye-catching manicure.
Next week, by special reader request, I'll show you how to make a purse that looks like an envelope. Yeah, an envelope. In the meantime, to check out past DIYs — including how to paint your nails with stripes, how to make a custom dress form parts I and II, how to make a fascinator, how to alter a thrift-store dress, how to knit an at-home version of a Prada bag, and how to sew a pair of shorts — click here.