How the French Manicure Has Evolved Over the Years (and How to Create a Fresh Twist on the Classic)

September 04, 2020
Sarah Ferguson
By: Sarah Ferguson | by L'Oréal

The French manicure is not only one of the most iconic nail looks of all time, it’s also probably the most polarizing. The design — with its neutral, glossy base and thick white tip — has gone from being all the rage to being considered outdated, and then getting completely reinvented. We recently chatted with Rita Remark, Essie global lead educator and nail industry veteran, about the rise and fall of the French manicure and its current comeback. Plus, we teamed up with nail artist Nyah to create a modern version of the look to try in 2020. Keep reading for all things French manicures.  

How the French Manicure First Became Popular 

The French manicure as we know it has been around since the late ’70s, when Jeff Pin, the then president and CEO of Orly International, was tasked with coming up with a look that actresses in Hollywood could wear while filming. Because the design is so versatile, it would help minimize the need for manicure changes in between scenes. It really took off after celebrities started sporting French manicures for public appearances and continued its reign throughout the ’90s and early ’00s. 

“The French manicure has seen many highs and lows,” says Remark. “I first saw the look as the pinnacle of sophistication. After Clueless came out in 1995, I started seeing it as the ‘cool girl’ look, reserved for the popular, enviable girls.” A few years down the line, the once elegant and hip nail design took a nosedive in popularity — at least as far as Remark is concerned. “Overuse had made the once oh-so-chic manicure a cheap and tacky mani faux pas,” she says. 

The Reinvention of the French Manicure

We started noticing a resurgence of the trend when negative-space nail art became a thing. But instead of white tips, we saw the inventive nail artists we follow on Instagram line their nails with punchy colors, creative patterns or even appliqués like rhinestones. There’s been lots of experimenting with base colors and nail shapes in recent seasons as well. 

What’s Next for the French Manicure?

According to Remark, expect the classic white tip to make a full comeback. “Like fashion trends, beauty trends are all cyclical,” she says. “I think the French mani came back onto the scene in an ironic, throwback way. The ’90s style has been trending in fashion recently, so it only makes sense that the nail design that defined it returns as well.”

How to Create a Modern French Manicure

One nail artist who has been playing with the look is Nyah. We asked her to create her own 2020 take on the look and walk us through how to do it. Read on for a step-by-step guide. 

STEP 1: Prep Your Nails

Start by shaping your nails as desired and then apply a base coat to each nail. 

STEP 2: Paint on the Tips

Nyah recommends using a striping tool/brush to paint the tips of the nails. For even more precision, she suggests balancing your pinky on the finger you’re painting. “This way your hand isn’t as shaky,” she says. 

Once you’ve dipped your brush into your polish of choice (she used Essie Souq Up the Sun here), start at the bottom corner of the nail (near the edge of the cuticle) and drag the brush upwards under the tip of the nail, creating a C-curve. 

STEP 3: Go for Another Coat

Fill in the tip with the same color you used to create the curve and then do it again for a more opaque finish. 

STEP 4: Create the Design Element

“For a fun and simple design, blot a contrasting color in a sporadic pattern around the tip using the striping brush,” says Nyah. You can do this on a couple of accent nails or on every one. Her contrasting color of choice was Essie’s Bustling Bazaar, a vibrant cyan blue. 

STEP 5: Finish the Job

Apply your favorite top coat, making sure that you’re “encapsulating” the nails, i.e. capping off the edges with a swipe for longevity. 

Photography, Art Direction and Nails: Nyah

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