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I came across the following description of Hermann Göring after his capture in 1945 in Elizabeth Borgwardt's A New Deal for the World (On Google Books):

The impression of a dissolute voluptuary - "infinitely corrupt...recall[ing] the madam of a brothel...a sexual quiddity" - was enhanced by his red lacquered fingernails and toenails and the 340 pounds he carried on his five-foot-six-inch frame

A quick google search seems to show this is a well-known fact about him. Of course, in above context and in many online contexts this is usually a side note to help portray his unusual or ridiculous presentation or make allegations about his sexuality.

However, in earlier times painting the nails seems to have been done by Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese and early Roman men of warriors or aristocratic classes. And we find references to this habit in some earlier source material:

"Here is a youth of fifty, with long grey hair, and a grey-suited man with scarlet lacquered fingernails, leading a small grimy dog." p113 Kings Cross Calling 1941

"Count Maurice tugged irritatedly at his short beard and perfumed oil from it came off onto his painted fingernails." Silver Leopard 1955 p140

Was Göring's painting of his nails a reflection of a practice less exclusively limited to women at some point in the past, let us say mid-20th century?

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See new edit.. From your comments it appears that your question is not general, but specific: was this sort of thing an affection adopted by high ranking Nazis in general or was Göring doing something unusual. Perhaps consider editing your question. Be that as it may, all the sources, including the one you base your question on, single out Göring - I think that itself answers the question. –  comeAndGo Jul 18 '13 at 7:57
    
Hi Histophile, thanks again. Your answer still uses a website and yourself as source, no books, articles or other primary sources. Would love answer to the general question, but flexible if no one finds anything more on general topic. Let me give a chance for someone who did a bit more than a google search to answer this and Ill take a stab at searching myself or editing your answer and accepting modified version! –  kmlawson Jul 18 '13 at 9:28
    
That's actually an article I cited, and you cited a book. Both single out Göring - so the answer appears self evident. Actually I don't understand why one should introduce your hypothesis that it was some kind of custom, when we find no evidence of such and we know the custom is not that way. I think you have a burden of proof to demonstrate that such a hypothesis is at all valid. You have conjured up an imaginative idea that has no basis, and are now asking: "Prove it isn't true". I forgot what that's called in logic, but it's an incorrect approach. –  comeAndGo Jul 18 '13 at 11:19
    
@Histophile, I'm sorry you feel this way. I asked in good faith. I'm sorry I didn't select your answer but was hoping for a bit more good faith effort at finding an answer. –  kmlawson Jul 18 '13 at 12:00
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@Histophile, history is full of surprises, just as own own world is full of surprises. Not everything you think is the case about the past, even the past you lived through, is true. My question has nothing to do with Göring, but more general - about something we assume to be the case about the past but may not have been the case. After looking, I think your (and mine!) instinct is probably true. I don't take issue with your conclusion at all - as you see, I think you may be right. I just hope we can encourage answers here that go beyond the top links of a google search or personal opinion. –  kmlawson Jul 18 '13 at 19:45
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2 Answers

This kind of "is X rare" is clearly difficult, since it is usually hard to quantify things like this across space and time.

@Histophile's own memories from the period and the fact that Göring's habit was singled out in a contemporary American account are suggestive that at least in US of time, this might have stood out. It doesn't tell us much about elites elsewhere, for example.

The following is left not as an answer so much as notes for anyone who wants to take this up. Now nail polish for women has become so associated with a marker of sexuality, transvestitism, or Goth culture, but I posed the question to see if anyone knew if it may not have necessarily invoked this connection in the not so distant past.

The very few number of references in books 1900-1950 on google books in variations of "he/his" "nail polish" "lacquered nails" "nail enamel" etc. suggest, as @Histophile argues, that it wasn't too common or remarked upon in English language at least. Just two examples of only a dozen or two that describe a man with colored nails:

"Here is a youth of fifty, with long grey hair, and a grey-suited man with scarlet lacquered fingernails, leading a small grimy dog." p113 Kings Cross Calling 1941

"Count Maurice tugged irritatedly at his short beard and perfumed oil from it came off onto his painted fingernails." Silver Leopard 1955 p140

Transparent nail enamel or "powder polish" seems more common:

"Men go in for powder polish and buffing or for clear, colorless liquid polish" 1946 Chain Store Age - Volume 22, Issues 1-6 - Page 337

"Customers are pleased with the lasting gloss of powder polish...Business men will appreciate the cut in manicuring time" 1934 Commercial America - Volume 31 - Page 19

Website on history of nail polish shows a 1909 advertisement of men getting nail enamel (but in this case clear - and no hint here of whether men might have wanted colored nail enamel) applied but all subsequent mentions from 1930s on are of women:

History of Nail Lacquer

Perhaps it becomes more exclusively for women with the marketing in the first few decades of 1900s with Vogue, shift to use of a new kind of nail lacquer (invented by a woman - Michell M-something) and marketing to women by Revlon in 1930s on.

Life magazine Feb, 1941 shows, unlike the 1909 ad, the emphasis on targeting women in the marketing. Other ads from 1930s show the same - at least in United States, again.

None of this speaks much to what is going on outside English speaking world of mid-20th century or practices among European or non-Europeans for example.

Of course, in much earlier times it seems to have been done by Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese and early Roman men of warriors or aristocratic classes which was one reason I wondered if it leaked into behavior of elites much later on.

Google books links on earlier practices:

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"It doesn't tell us much about elites elsewhere, for example. " Incorrect IMO - the sources you and I cited (yours is not contemporary) are commenting on the Nazis and singled out Göring from that group - the Nazis were not Americans. So it's reasonable to conclude that other Nazis did not have the habit. The two references to you cite here are very interesting indeed. But "Silver Leopard" is a novel set in early medieval times. "Kings Cross Calling" is a travelogue about Australia, more recent and authoritative. –  comeAndGo Jul 18 '13 at 17:07
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Having grown up in NYC, "crossroads of the world", and lived through the mid 20th Century, I consider myself a "primary source" on such a matter. :-) :

As far as that period is concerned, at least in the Western World, the answer is a resounding No - it was not less exclusively limited to women - on the contrary. A man with painted fingernails? Few things could have been more bizarre. (Obviously I'm talking about public, 'mainstream society', not the sub-cultures of homosexuals, etc, where I imagine things might have been different)

By way of analogy, consider hair styles: When the Beatles became big in 1962-3 (I was a teenager at that time) they were notorious internationally for their "long hair". Yet when you look back on their early photos, by today's standards you see nothing unusual whatsoever about their hair styles. The contemporary world has become far more open-minded about "male plumage" compared to the relatively puritanical and dour mid 20th century.

I also found this (I have not yet vetted the source) @ http://redroom.com/member/frank-sanello/writing/hermann-goring-nazi-war-criminal-drug-addict-transvestite. From this source it seems quite obvious that Göring's behavior was by no means the norm:

World War II in Drag

Göring engaged in other aberrant behavior that apparently the Gestapo didn’t think of using to blackmail him. Visiting generals at Göring's palatial hunting lodge in suburban Berlin were shocked by their host's appearance.

The second most powerful man in the Third Reich greeted guests wearing a kimono, rouge, lipstick, pancake makeup, lacquered fingernail polish, and women’s jewelry while padding about in pink, fur-lined bunny slippers.

A Report on the Banality of Evil, the subtitle of Hannah Arendt's book about Adolf Eichmann's trial in Israel in 1961, comes to mind when Göring's concept of casual dress is described.

Although many Nazis were gay, especially the purged Storm Troopers, Göring was a heterosexual transvestite who married twice, fathered a daughter, and had numerous extramarital affairs ‒ with women.

Göring’s custom of painting his finger nails continued in prison during his post-war trial at Nuremberg until the martinet American warden ordered his prisoner to remove the polish..

Prior to Germany’s defeat, Göring’s decadent lifestyle and incapacitating drug use were noted by his ally, SS chief Heinrich Himmler. When Speer tried to enlist Göring’s support in a power struggle against Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, Himmler told Speer not to waste his time. “I think it would very unwise of you to try to activate the Reichsmarschall again!”

Be that as it may, all the sources, (there are a many references to Göring's affectation, which became quite public when he was tried after the war) including the one kmlawson based the question on, single out Göring - I think that itself answers the question: It was a peculiar habit of Göring - not the norm among Nazi officers or anyone else.

In addition, Sanello's account: "wearing a kimono, rouge, lipstick, pancake makeup, lacquered fingernail polish, and women’s jewelry while padding about in pink, fur-lined bunny slippers" indicates that regarding Göring, the issue was not just painted nails, which appears to have been indeed been a custom among warrior and aristocratic classes during certain periods of history, as cited by kmlawson in his erudite answer: Göring's behavior appears to have been out and out cross dressing.

Still, one could surmise that Göring had adopted the customs of earlier societies and decided that expanding on such habits behooved him, considering his very prominent position in the Third Reich.

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Please explain downvote. Very nonconstructive to down-vote without explanation, particularly since you are dealing with a primary source. –  comeAndGo Jul 17 '13 at 17:47
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+0 Thanks Histophile, that is good to get some personal experience input. However, I'm not sure the personal experience of one person from the period can tell us whether it was less exclusively limited. Admittedly, this is a tough question. It might help to know if Göring's fellow German upper class or officers thought inappropriate, or whether there are hits for others among certain groups of people. Or depictions of it in a negative light, etc. There are few ways to get at it. –  kmlawson Jul 17 '13 at 21:44
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@Histophile you have given no data at all. primary source? as in you lived through that time? that's not enough. did you have a profession involving male grooming? or did you experience a very wide range of countries and cultures (especially Germany). if so, you haven't said so –  Tea Drinker Jul 17 '13 at 21:46
    
@hawbsl-I lived through that time in NYC, 'crossroads of the world'. I also saw endless movies, newsreels (That was before they really had TV-they showed them in the movies) from WW2,TV shows,radio programs and newspapers from all over the world-which you might understand if you lived in NYC. And NO EXPERIENCE in male grooming needed to see if a man has his nails painted: Obvious from the question and language:We're not talking about clear polish! I state with authority: Men in the western world did not paint their nails in the mid 20th century! If Göring did it, it was weird. –  comeAndGo Jul 17 '13 at 23:05
    
@hawbsl - " (especially Germany)". May I suggest that you read the question: it is not about Germany per se! It is framed as a general question. –  comeAndGo Jul 17 '13 at 23:10
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