In the mid-1990s, manicurist Bernadette Thompson was working on a fashion shoot with Lil’ Kim, who was then on her way to becoming a hip-hop fashion icon and still years away from becoming a jailbird. It wasn’t the first time she’d worked with the influential rapper, so Thompson was feeling a bit of self-imposed pressure to come up with something new and jaw-dropping — something creative enough to compete with the makeup, the hair and all the rest.
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.
“There were a lot of people on the photo shoots who know about fashion and beauty, but they didn’t really know that much about nails,” Thompson says. “So they left it up to me.”
Soon Thompson was riffing on her original idea, upping the flash by using hundred dollar bills. She charged that added expense to her clients; while Thompson might have been manicuring the nails of millionaires, she was still a woman of modest means. Eventually, the U.S. government sent Thompson a gentle reminder that you’re not supposed to deface money, even if it belongs to you. So Thompson started using fake bills, which were thinner and more flexible than the real thing and thus easier to apply to nails.
Now, those nails are part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Items: Is Fashion Modern,” which runs through January 28. The show examines 111 garments and accessories that have had a lasting impact over the past century. The assembled collection includes the little black dress, the pencil skirt, Levi’s jeans, the hoodie, the Wonderbra, stilettos and Converse All-Star sneakers. The idea is to explore the ways in which fashion speaks to politics, culture and identity — all the ways in which fashion is woven into our lives, shaping and reflecting who we are.
Thompson’s re-creations of her original money nails are one of the few examples of beauty products or rituals in the exhibition, which also includes red lipstick and Chanel №5. The nails are also a rare example of an iconic look that comes directly from the world of black women.
“Black girls always added things to nails, like they added things to clothes,” says Thompson, 48, who is black and grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. A manicure “is not super expensive. It’s less than an Hermès bag. And you wear it every day.” It’s a form of pampering, and a grooming flourish. It’s a weekday extension of the pride a woman might find by slipping into her Sunday best, and all the identity, self-respect and defensive vanity those clothes help provide.
In the beginning, the nails were a part of hip-hop style, which was a separate category from what was then considered mainstream fashion. Whatever it was called, it was a sensibility that came naturally to Thompson, who once considered law school but always had an affinity for hair styling and beauty. She got her start working on videos and album covers for Mary J. Blige, with whom she’d grow up, as well as Kim and Sean Combs. Once she stepped outside the world of urban entrepreneurs and started to work for corporate brands, she saw that a manicure still meant neutral tones, pale pink or the occasional red. Thompson helped to change that. One of her earliest corporate clients was Louis Vuitton. She painted the nails to match the monogram of the bags.
Today, thanks in large measure to Thompson, manicurists are regularly credited in fashion shoots. And nail art is as common on a European runway or corporate fashion shoot as it is in a Detroit or Harlem nail salon. For Thompson, it has become harder to recreate the atmosphere of no-rules creativity of her early days. Breaking the rules led to her success. Success led to expectations, deadlines and discrete parameters. So she’s looking forward to opening a new salon. A fancy one that is members only. “I feel like I can get back to that feeling of art,” Thompson says.
In the meantime, her money nails are at MOMA, sitting alongside Calvin Klein briefs, Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and an Hermès Birkin bag. All of these things are modern because they tell us something about the aesthetics that currently animate us. They transcend tradition, rewrite rules and create a new baseline. In different ways, they all introduced a new point-of-view into an ongoing conversation. The brief offered a new view of male sexuality. The sunglasses exuded gender-neutral swagger. The Birkin codified privilege in calf leather.
Thompson’s nail art scrambled our assumptions about femininity, beauty and class. And those issues remain at the center of our cultural dialogue. Thompson’s work is modern. And will be for the foreseeable future.