Nail polish has been a high end fashion accessory for thousands of years, coming into the lives of women on a mass scale only in the 20th century. Did you know that when youre painting your nails, youre walking in the footsteps of aristocracy from the Chinese and Egyptian dynasties? And youre stepping into the shoes of the later Hollywood royalty. This quick guide to the history of nail varnish explains why it was always a high society beauty product, when it was launched in modern times and the fashions that came before the nail polishes we wear today came to fill stores and salons worldwide.
The earliest records of nail polish seem to originate in China, where around 3000 BC it was made from bees wax, egg white and gum Arabic and tinted with brightly coloured flower petals. It took several hours to stain the nails, so its not surprising that just as it was for the ancient Egyptians, nail varnish was the exclusive preserve of the Chinese upper classes. Cleopatra is believed to have worn dark red, and interestingly, in later Chinese dynasties, interestingly metallics seem to have been in vogue for a time.
Closer to home, by the 18th century, European manicure techniques spearheaded by podiatrist Dr Sitts had crossed over to the USA. But it wasnt until the 1920s that modern nail polishes gained widespread popularity. The new nail varnish replaced pastes or powders used to buff nails, which tended to have only a temporary effect. The invention of modern nail polish is usually attributed in about 1920 to a French make up artist named Michelle Menard, working for the company which later evolved into Revlon in the early 1930s. It began as a flapper trend and by the 1940s was adorning the fingernails of Hollywood royalty such as the actress Rita Hayworth.
The 1950s saw scarlet nail polishes matching scarlet lipsticks (think Lucille Ball); or pale shimmering frosted pinks. The 1960s saw lots of pale lipsticks (think Brigitte Bardot), heavy eyeliner (think Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra); nail varnish tended to use paler, pastel shades. By the 1970s, a more natural look was in, alongside the departure into punk and goth styles in the very late 1970s with black nail polishes. The 1970s also saw two very important milestones in the history of nail varnish.
The introduction of acrylic nails was accompanied around the same time by the official launch for French manicure kits featuring a nude base colour and white nail polish for nail tips. Into the 1980s, hit TV shows Dallas and Dynasty helped to spearhead powerdressing, with plenty of bold colours for make up including nails, and an equal emphasis on big, super-styled hair. Equally, Madonna launched a funky, bold look, including neon nail polishes. The most important factor in the 1980s was definitely the expansion of salon quality nail colours. Fast forward to the 1990s though, Cleopatras favourite shade re-emerged as arguably the hottest fashion trend of the decade.
Tarantinos cult hit movie Pulp Fiction featured actress Uma Thurman wearing short square nails and a Chanel shade Rouge Noir/Vamp. Dark red quickly became defining fashion of the decade. In the noughties, probably the safest statement is simply that the increase in nail polish shades by the better brands had launched an enormous variety of different trends. Acrylic nails were firmly in fashion, with nail art featuring patterns, gems and foils. Colours today still change with every fashion season; the better brands take their inspiration directly from high fashion runways.