Over at the Washington Post, Robin Givhan gives us the backstory of how nail artist Bernadette Thompson’s iconic money manicure ended up in its rightful place—the Museum of Modern Art.
The nails in question are part of an exhibit currently running at the MOMA called “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”—a collection of 111 items of clothing and accessories, from the kippah to the little black dress to a pair of Levis, arranged together to explore “the many relationships between fashion and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, identity, economy, and technology.” Nestled amongst these various artifacts are a set of Thompson’s money nails, first created for Lil’ Kim on the set of a photo shoot for an ad campaign.
The shoot was for a denim campaign, but Kim was also surfing a wave of enthusiasm for her contribution to the Junior M.A.F.I.A. single “Get Money.” That became the manicurist’s source of inspiration. She reached into her little nylon wallet, pulled out a dollar bill, cut it into pieces and strategically applied bits of currency to Kim’s acrylic nails to create an eye-popping manicure by way of the U.S. Treasury.
The money nails became a Thing, to the point where New York wrote up the trend in a pithy little pargraph in its “Gotham Style” section. From the June 5, 2000 issue:
Got your money on your mind? Now you can have it on your nails too. When manicurist-to-the-stars Bernadette Thompson did a French manicure with dollar-bill tips for Lil’ Kim, salons from Lenox Avenue to Flatbush were filled with customers intent on copying the look. But like shahtoosh-loving socialites, the ghetto-fabulous glamour-pusses found that their trend ran afoul of the law: Defacing American currency is a crime. One solution is to do the deed yourself: “Bring your own dollar,” whispers the receptionist at downtown Brooklyn’s Long Nail (143 Lawrence Avenue; 718-624-1818). Thompson simply went to Times Square and bought stacks of fake bills. “I’m not trying to risk it,” she says. “The fake stuff is thinner, so it glues to the nails better. And it looks exactly the same.”
Setting aside the “ghetto-fabulous glamour-puss” bit that dates this turn-of-the-century paragraph, it’s clear that Thompson knew precisely what she was doing. “Black girls always added things to nails, like they added things to clothes,” Thompson told the Washington Post. For the most part, a manicure is an affordable luxury— “less than an Hermès bag,” Thompson notes—and it’s an accessory that you wear every single day.
Nail art, as Givhan notes, was primarily relegated to “hip-hop style,” but Thompson elevated it in part by painting the nails of women like Mary J. Blige and Lil’ Kim in fashion and photo shoots. Thompson did a Louis Vuitton shoot where she painted tiny Louis Vuitton logos on the nails, to match the bags. With that, nail art started to become more “acceptable” to the mainstream, which leads us to our current moment in time. Studios like Paintbox and Valley Nail in New York will do whatever your heart desires on your nails—though it should be noted that Paintbox sticks to an anesthetized, minimalistic “menu”of options, perfect for a certain kind of Instagram photo featuring a disembodied hand gesturing wanly towards a monstera plant and a hand-thrown mug.
E! News recently retired its “mani cam,” a faintly humiliating exercise that saw celebrities trotting their fingers down a tiny red carpet, to show off their nail art. The Kardashians’ full-throated support of long acrylics in 2015 begat a spate of experiential posts that occasionally rang a teensy bit tone-deaf. Kylie Jenner’s nails may be “crazy” and Kim Kardashian’s brief flirtation with long nails might render someone a “funtionally useless human being,” but each wide-eyed take ignored the fact that many women choose to live their lives with long, painted, fake nails because that’s how they choose to live.
Givhan writes that “Thompson’s nail art scrambled our assumptions about femininity, beauty and class.” Clearly we’re still grappling with these issues and will be for the rest of our days, but for this, we have Thompson to thank.