In the highest echelon of nail polish colors—you know, the ones so instantly recognizable you can identify them from across the room, like OPI’s Lincoln Park After Dark, Chanel’s Vamp, and Sally Hansen’s Terra-Coppa—there’s one major outlier: Essie’s Ballet Slippers. Unlike the others, the soft, pale pink polish is kind of a sleeper hit in comparison. It's such a safe, inoffensive color that it could easily be relegated to the ladies-who-lunch, pearl-clutching set—but it hasn't. In fact, it's a constant best-seller, and the only neutral shade to reach this iconic level. Celebrities love it, influencers rave about it, and rumor has it Meghan Markle may even wear it on her wedding day. So how exactly did it become so damn cool?
Essie Weingarten launched her eponymous line of nail colors back in 1981 (to put it into perspective, that's the same year Markle graced the planet with her presence). The next year, she created Ballet Slippers to pay homage to her girlhood ritual of getting manicures with her mother. Every Saturday, if Weingarten—a budding ballerina—had done well in her ballet class, her mom would take her to the local beauty party and let her get her nails done. In a nod to the delicate femininity of ballet (and, of course, ballet slippers), Weingarten created an equally delicate, feminine polish to match.
Now, 36 years later, Ballet Slippers is as popular as ever, to the point where the masses are speculating that Markle may wear the shade for the royal wedding. It wouldn’t be the first time a royal wore it. The story is akin to legend at this point: Back in 1989, Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser requested a bottle of the pale, nearly translucent pink polish be sent to Buckingham Palace—giving it the ultimate "safe" stamp of approval. Her disdain for colorful nail polish, on the other hand, is well-known by now. (She reportedly considers it vulgar, and it's the reason you won't see Duchess Kate or Duchess-to-be Meghan wearing a bright shade.)
Her Royal Highness's blessing supported its rep as an unassuming, ladylike shade—and put the color on the map in the process. Essie declined to share revenue of Ballet Slippers following the Queen's request, but it's fair to say that her affection for it aided its success. Soon, everyone wanted it. Even today, a bottle of it is sold every two seconds, and nearly 80,000 bottles have been sold in just this year to date. (That's only four months, FYI.) So far, it's the best-selling Essie shade of 2018.
Its staying power might have to do with its constant appearances in pop culture. Royals aside, Ballet Slippers also made a cameo in the 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, in which a character reports that Vogue staffers layer it with one coat of Essie's Marshmallow. (This sheer white shade makes Ballet Slippers "pop," according to Rita Remark, manicurist and global lead educator for Essie.) Having worked at Vogue, I can attest to the theory that as a skittish 20-something, you probably don't want to draw too much attention to yourself there. (I spent a lot of time shrinking behind my desk.) But that's just me—and other, more seasoned staffers had no qualms about wearing dark or colorful polish.
Then, in 2008’s Don't You Forget About Me (the eleventh book in the Gossip Girl series), Blair Waldorf got nostalgic about her best friend, Serena van der Woodsen, painting her nails with Essie’s Ballet Slippers. "[Blair] remembered how much fun they used to have playing dress-up when they were little, trying on clothes in her room all afternoon and drinking Campari and sodas with lime, giggling together in the bathroom mirror as Serena expertly painted Blair’s nails with black liner, or lacquered her nails with ballet slipper pink Essie polish," wrote Gossip Girl author Cecily Von Ziegesar. In this context, the polish represents a time when Blair wasn’t quite so conniving and competitive. She’s nice! She’s not trying to find ways to take Serena down a notch! It was a simpler, sweeter time—which is totally in keeping with the ethos of Ballet Slippers.
As with Blair, Ballet Slippers was like a rite of passage for many women. For Zoe, 25, a lawyer in Ann Arbor, MI, it's one of only five nail polishes she owns. "I received it as a gift in a set of other polishes when I was a teenager," she says. "It was the only one of them that I repurchased. I like that it's the 'no-makeup makeup' of nails, if you will, but it can also work as a more opaque pink with multiple coats or—and this is my favorite part—with other polishes to tone them down, brighten them up, or just add a little shine." It's the kind of shade that can do it all—including make you feel like you're on your game. "It's almost a security blanket," says Brittany, 27, a publicist in New York City. "Even if I hate my outfit and my hair's shit, I feel put-together and polished when I wear Ballet Slippers." (Hey, it has a rep of being "safe" for a reason.) Plus, it's as low-maintenance as it gets. “I started wearing it at least five years ago,” says Christina, 26, an engineer in LA. “I liked that it was light enough that you can’t see when it starts to chip."
It's also a red-carpet staple. It's last reported celebrity sighting was on Emma Stone at the 2018 Met Gala. And everyone from Barbra Streisand to Mandy Moore has worn it. “Ballet Slippers has less pink than similar polishes, so it's better-suited for high fashion and couture styles," says celebrity manicurist Emi Kudo, who counts Stone, Yara Shahidi, and Kerry Washington among her clients. "It never fights with any outfit, which is why I think celebrities have loved this color for so long. I've been using this color on them for 20 years."
That sort of appeal translates for newer celebrities, too—like Instagram influencers. A search for #BalletSlippers on Instagram brings up over 40,000 posts (most of which are the nail polish, not actual ballet slippers). Among them, you'll find many from Instagram beauty influencer Marianna Hewitt, who wears (and raves about) Ballet Slippers regularly. And on Pinterest, the tag "Essie Ballet Slippers" brings up an endless scroll of pretty photos. No wonder it's one of the most re-pinned nail colors on the site.
What's most impressive is its staying power. After all, it shouldn't be that hard to find a dupe for a pale pink nail polish. But the texture sets it apart from the rest. "Many try to capture the soft, neutral pink color, but what's truly unique about Ballet Slippers is it's not-quite-sheer, not-quite-opaque look," says Remark. "The result is a soft pink veil of color that conceals nail imperfections and flatters your nails all while remaining clean and sheer." Plus, that translucence means it works for just about everyone—which might explain why it's a regular for brides (so much so that some bridal experts hold it as the standard).
So, it doesn't even matter whether Markle wears it for the royal wedding or wears another neutral, like Kate Middleton did with Essie's Allure. Ballet Slippers has made history all on its own.
Essie nail polish in Ballet Slippers, $9, amazon.com
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