Where Donald J. Trump enters every room, press conference, and 280-character text box with characteristic bravado, Melania Trump does the opposite: A woman of very few words, she historically speaks with symbolism through her appearance.
So when the First Lady wore a white Michael Kors skirt suit, a custom wide-brim hat by her go-to stylist Hervé Pierre, and a French manicure to greet French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, on the second day of their state visit earlier this week, a few theories emerged. Was her headwear an homage to Beyoncé? Was the head-to-toe white an allusion to the shade of the suffragette movement? And was her classic white-tipped manicure a cheeky nod to President Macron's country of origin?
The answers, in that order: you must be kidding, not likely, and definitely not. Because while Mrs. Trump does know a thing or two about fashion, she is not a feminist icon nor a champion of women, and if it was French style that she was looking to evoke with her nails, she must have been led astray. The only thing French about the French manicure is its name.
While a preference for clean, well-manicured nails has been documented at least since the purity-obsessed Victorian era (in Gustave Flaubert's 1856 debut novel Madame Bovary, the titular character is described favorably as having nails "glossy, delicate at the tips, more polished than the ivory of Dieppe"), when it comes to the specific origin of the French manicure as we know it, all roads lead back to Jeff Pink, the American founder of nail-polish brand Orly.
In the mid-1970s, in Calabasas, the small Los Angeles suburb perhaps now best known for being the home base of the Kardashians, Pink was tasked by a film director to come up with a universal nail look that would save screen actresses from having to spend time getting their nails redone to go along with their costume changes. Inspired by the instant brightening effect of a white pencil applied to the underside, Pink suspected that the solution was to apply that same neutralizing principle to the top of the nail. "I got one gallon of white polish for the tips, and pink, beige, or rose for the nail," he recalled in a 2014 interview with The National.
The Natural Nail Kit, as Pink called it then, was a hit among movie stars and the studios who found the time-saving strategy indispensable. "The director commented that I should get an Oscar for saving the industry so much money," he said. Eventually Pink took the trend to the catwalk crowd in Paris, and they liked it, too. The only thing it needed, he thought, was a kickier name. He came up with the whole "French" rebranding on the flight back home to Los Angeles.
The fetishization of French-ness, particularly when it comes to beauty, needs no explanation. It is absurd but true that calling something French, regardless of its origin, instantly piques interest and makes things seem chic and more sophisticated, especially to the American crowd. Pink was smart to give the nail look that name. It also had celebrity support; Barbra Streisand was one notable fan. Her decision to wear a French manicure — on aggressively long acrylics, no less — throughout the filming of her 1991 romantic drama The Prince of Tides was actually a point of contention, with one Los Angeles Times article beseeching her to ditch the look. "At a time when short, tailored nails painted red or buffed to a natural shine are the trend," the author wrote, "Streisand's old-fashioned talons stuck out." (Recent photos prove that Babs didn't listen — she still wears them to this day, acrylics and all.)
The French manicure may have aged only slightly better than Nick Nolte, but you'll still find it immortalized everywhere from the Jersey Shore to junior prom, and even in modern interpretations that turn the trend on its head with splashy colors and designs. So very far now from the Paris runways it was named after, the look also has some strangely classist connotations, sometimes referred to as "tacky" or "trashy." And despite its misnomer, or perhaps because of it, there's something distinctly American about the way we've come to think of the French manicure, in its misguided status symbolism and put-together conceit.
From that perspective, it's no wonder that the French is the First Lady's manicure of choice — and besides, if close-ups of your folded hands as you pointedly avoid your husband's touch were going to be broadcasted all over the world, you'd want your nails to look good, too.