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Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908) with long fingernails and nail guards. Google Images

Long Finger Nails

Along with the Egyptians, the Chinese were one of the first cultures to perfect nail art. Chinese Nail polish was colored with vegetable dyes and flowers, mixed with egg whites, beeswax, and gum Arabic, which helped fix the color in place. From around 600 BC, gold and silver were favorite colors, but by the Ming dynasty of the fifteenth century, favorite shades included red and black- or the color of the ruling imperial house, often embellished with gold dust.

Another advantage of Chinese nail polish was it protected the nails. The strengthening properties of the mixture proved useful because, from the Ming dynasty onwards, excessively long fingernails were in vogue amongst the upper classes. By the time of the Qing dynasty, which lasted from the seventeenth until the twentieth century, these nails could reach 8-10 inches long.

The fashion for excessive nail growth was primarily a statement of status as it was impossible to grow nails so long and undertake any manual labor. Unfortunately, such long nails meant the wearer of them could not do anything much at all. It would undoubtedly have been positively dangerous to have attempted any intimate body care. Therefore, anyone with such long nails would have relied upon servants to wash, dress and feed them, to prevent them doing themselves an injury- or breaking a nail.

To counteract the inconvenience of a full set of long claws, it became fashionable for the Manchu women of the Qing dynasty to cultivate just one or two talons on the hands. These nails were shaped and styled so that they looked elegant rather than unwieldy and from the nineteenth century were often protected with nail guards made of gold or silver and studded with jewels.