Matte Nails: A Brief History
Ask any manicure maven what they remember most about 2009, and you’re likely to hear that it was the year matte nails first made their mark as a major trend. Oh, sure, there was a swine flu outbreak and Barack Obama became President of the United States and Glee premiered—all very big deals, no doubt—but what has outlasted them all is the appeal of matte nails, a look still going strong nearly a decade later on runways and sidewalks alike.
“I’d say I first noticed matte nails around 2009,” recalls Simcha Whitehill, also known as Miss Pop, a celebrity nail artist who has incorporated matte nails into New York Fashion Week looks for a number of designers over the years, including Marissa Webb, Charlotte Ronson, and Rag & Bone. “I think that’s when the nail-art blogosphere got excited about it.”
And how could it not? With nail polish powerhouses like OPI launching matte versions of six of their most famous shades that July—Lincoln Park After Dark, Russian Navy, Gargantuan Green Grape, Alpine Snow, La Paz-itively Hot, and You Don’t Know Jacques!—matte nails were becoming a trend neither the obsessed blogger nor the casual manicure-getter could ignore. Brands like Dashing Diva, Diamond Cosmetics, SpaRitual, and Jessica Cosmetics all followed OPI’s lead, launching limited matte color collections (some as small as just two shades) in time for revelers to welcome 2010 with matte manicures.
OPI no longer makes matte versions of their most popular nail lacquers, and although a few brands still make a range of matte shades—Color Club’s Matte Rouge collection and Zoya’s MatteVelvet line, for example—matte nail colors have become less visible on the shelf, while matte top coats have seen a clear (no pun intended) rise in popularity over the last eight years. Essie, ORLY, Barielle, China Glaze, and CND all offered matte top coats before the end of 2009, and they all still make them today, along with a number of other brands.
“I think people love versatility,” Miss Pop says. “The idea that you can make any shade matte is more appealing than just having one matte color.”
But just because you can mattify any shade doesn’t mean you should. Some colors simply read more chic than others when they cease to shine.
“I love the traditional matte black, red, concrete, and ballet pink,” Miss Pop says. “However, my favorite shades to mattify are glittery jewel-tone metallics. Matte top coat isolates every fleck of sparkle, giving the polish the appearance of being granite or crystal.”
Designers have definitely shown preferences toward certain shades when sending matte nails down the runway.
“Every other show was doing a matte nude nail,” Claire Beaudreault, a Brooklyn-based nail artist, recalls of working backstage at New York Fashion Week in 2013. “I started working on a model at a show and realized I was taking off the exact color and finish that I was putting back on. She said she'd done three shows that day and they were all the exact same nude matte nail.”
So how exactly does a layer of a clear, matte top coat transform an otherwise shiny nail polish into a flat color?
According to Dan Werner, Director of Laboratories & Chief Chemist at ORLY International, it’s the result of a “specialty-grade amorphous silica.” This material lowers the refractive index from being high (which the eye sees as glossy) to being low (which the eye sees as matte). "It does this by affecting the scattering of light and reflection.” And voila: matte nails.
Actually, you may want to consider Miss Pop’s advice and apply a regular, shiny top coat before a matte one.
“Firstly, the best way to apply matte top coat is actually over regular top coat so your won’t get an uneven, sheer, or brush-stroke-y looking application,” she advises. “Let the regular top coat level and smooth out your color layers. Wait a few minutes for it to dry, then add a layer of matte top coat. The good news is matte top coats dry so quickly, you won’t have to wait for twice the dry time.”
And it’s truly astonishing what that change in texture can do to a color.
“For a Charlotte Ronson fashion week show a few years ago, I did a half matte, half shiny deep purple metallic look,” Miss Pop recalls of using OPI’s now discontinued Ink on the models’ nails. “The matte top coat really transformed the shade. People couldn’t believe it was the same color with just a different finish."
Give any beauty trend enough time and you’ll find experts getting creative with it. Matte nails are no exception. Nail artists have come up with ingenious ways to work matte finishes into elaborate and simple designs, like Miss Pop’s aforementioned half-shiny, half-matte look.
“Some designs look so much chicer in matte,” Miss Pop says. “I also like to do a matte crème nail with glossy polka dots or abstract lines. Or I even like to wear a matte top coat on a bare nail. It brings out the blush and lavender tones in your natural nail bed.”
Brands are getting creative with the matte look, too. Press-on manicure brand imPRESS now offers a variety of adhesive nail sets that incorporate matte nails.
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Some nail polish brands are even bending the laws of logic with their matte experiments.
“One matte polish game-changer that I love is Pixie Dust by Zoya,” Beaudreault gushes. “It sounds contradictory but it's a matte glitter. It doesn't require a basecoat or topcoat, it’s opaque in one coat, and because it's glitter it stays on really well.”
Needless to say, when the best of these clever takes on matte nails started finding their way to various social media platforms, nail art fans couldn’t get enough.
“Clients usually see designs on Pinterest or Instagram and bring inspiration photos,” Beaudreault explains. And with nearly 350,000 images with the #mattenails hashtag on Instagram and even more results when you search “matte nails” on Pinterest, there’s no sign of this manicure trend become untrendy.
But that’s not to say matte nails haven’t seen a dip in popularity in its short time as a mainstream manicure style.
“With the rise of gel polish, the idea of super-shiny glass-like nails kind of swung the pendulum back to gloss,” Miss Pop says. “However, gel brands are now making matte top coats to meet demand. So it seems the pendulum is swinging back again.”