The Surprising History of the Iconic French Manicure

What do multitalented moguls Beyoncé, Reese Witherspoon, and Victoria Beckham have in common? Aside from obvious talent, enviable business acumen, and covetable closets, they share a love for the timeless French manicure. 

While you’re undoubtedly familiar with the quintessentially chic design, you might be surprised to learn that the French manicure did not, in fact, originate in France. It was created in 1975 by President and CEO of Orly International Jeff Pink, who, at the time, was an American beauty supplier and makeup artist working in Hollywood. “The directors would complain about how long it would take to change the nail colors on the actresses to match their wardrobes for different scenes,” recalls Pink. “They asked me to make a color that would go with everything. I thought of using white polish on the tips of the nails. I used it on the tips of nails, then put a flesh-toned polish over it,” he explains. This natural-looking nail polish design transitioned seamlessly between wardrobes, thereby decreasing the time it took for costume changes. 

At the time, white nail polish was uncommon and not easily sourced, but Pink changed all that after the studios thanked him for all the money they would save on manicures and idle time on set. Seeing a smart business opportunity, Pink began selling a flesh-colored polish and opaque white lacquer together, calling the set the Natural Look Nail Kit. He then took the look to Paris, where it was used on models for a fashion show. When he returned to the states, he started calling it the French manicure.

Of course, this was in the pre-Instagram era, so consumers didn’t have the behind-the-scenes access to beauty experts that we have today. The French manicure really took off when two of the biggest stars of the era (and arguably ever) wore the look on television. “After Cher and Barbra Streisand went on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson separately with their French manicures, people started talking about it,” Pink recalls. Carson asked Streisand about her noticeably long and precisely polished nails, and the rest is history. According to Pink, “After a few years, [the kit] was selling like hotcakes!”

So there you have it: The 45-year-old French manicure is as American as apple pie. Today, it remains a classic nail look and continues to inspire new iterations to fit the ever-changing color and design trends. Since it’s a longtime favorite of the Hollywood set, it’s no surprise that Beyoncé, Reese Witherspoon, and Victoria Beckham regularly sport the design everywhere from red carpets to boardrooms to book clubs and beach days. Keep scrolling for a few of our favorite French mani moments from today’s biggest stars, plus the perfect polishes and tools to help you create the look at home.