Young cosmopolitans love nail-head glitter!1
Dresses embellished with decorative gold, brass or silver nail heads first appeared in the late 1930s. Usually seen on solid-color "background" dresses of wool or synthetic crepe, nail heads were used as glittering accents on bodice, sleeves, belt, collar, pocket or cuffs. Marketed towards the "smart, lithe, swift moving figures of youth" for evening or special occasion dress, nail head decoration was also used more sparsely on dresses intended for day wear.2 Typical placement usually focused on the neckline and upper bodice, though print advertisements indicate that nail heads were placed anywhere and everywhere. In 1940, the New York City branch of Best & Co. advertised a slim, floor length gown of rayon crepe with "a skirt that falls slim and straight when still, yet flares into a sunburst of nail-studded pleats when you dance."3
This evening gown, also seen in our Little Black Dress post, features nail heads placed between gold-colored leaves and green rhinestones. The rhinestones and leaves are more elaborate than other nail head decoration featured in period advertisements. However, like many other late 1930s nail head dresses, the placement of the nail heads suggests jewelry, especially a necklace. This placement might point to the origins of nail head embellishment. Were nail heads used as an inexpensive way to mimic the look of jeweled necklaces?
Another point of origin for nail head embellishment might be the work of Schiaparelli. In the late 1930s, Schiaparelli created lavishly embroidered and embellished evening capes, suits and jackets. Featuring metallic embroidery, elaborate gold buttons and glass jewels, these creations were beyond the financial reach of the ordinary woman. You can see some of Schiaparelli's work here. Perhaps Schiaparelli's use of metallic embroidery filtered down to the everywoman in the form of a less expensive embellishment, metallic nail heads.
Nail head embellishment remained popular into the 1940s, appearing on shoes and trousers in addition to dresses. Evening shoes and summer sandals with nail head embellishment across the vamp and along the ankle straps were widely advertised in the early 1940s. In 1941, a Los Angeles Times article focusing on resort and casual wear featured a trouser/jacket ensemble in cotton denim with nail head embellishment on the pockets. The article was illustrated with a drawing of woman closely resembling Katherine Hepburn, who famously wore pants both on and off screen. This article suggests that the "rugged and western" look was borrowed from "early frontier clothes."4 In the early 1940s, nail head decoration also appeared on leather belts and necklaces "sweeping up over the border" from Mexico.5
The changing significance of nail head embellishment illustrates the constantly shifting nature of fashion. Just when you think you've got a handle on some trend, style or fad, it morphs into something entirely different. Though it began as sophisticated decoration in the 1930s, by the 1940s nail head embellishment was also associated with western wear and/or non-western styles. In contemporary fashion, nail heads (in the form of studs) serve as a reference to iconoclastic punk fashion and are often used to give a garment an "edgy" feel. Any thoughts as to where they'll go next?
1 "Best & Co. ad." The Washington Post 19 Nov. 1941: 22.
2 "Bullock's Budget Shop ad." Los Angeles Times 31 Aug. 1937: A3.
3 "Best & Co. ad." New York Times 7 Aug. 1940: 6.
4 Weaver, Sylvia. "Denims Lead Parade of Cotton Week Styles." Los Angeles Times 20 May 1941: A7.
5 "Mexican Motif Prevails in New Novelty Jewelry." The Washington Post 4 Oct. 1940: 19.