Wednesday, February 6, 2013

History Lesson on Nail Polish

Curiosity is a compelling thing. Einstein claimed he was not a genius, just exceptionally curious. I like to think I'm exceptionally curious. I wonder about the mundane, the elegant, the downright bizarre. How did the delightfully petite macarons come about? Where did the word 'serendipity' come from? However, I am certainly no genius.

Yet, here I am, another curiosity, another question: Who decided that it was aesthetically pleasing to paint a glossy coat of varnish on one's nails?

Thus, here we are: nail polish, a brief history. 

Babylonia, 3200 B.C.: a treasure trove for historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and now beauty enthusiasts. Manicures made from kohl were first spotted in ancient royal tombs, worn by males in colors with accordance to social class. 

Around the same time, the Chinese also used nail color as a sense of self-expression and class definition. Their methods of coloring the nails were quite different than ours of today; they used egg whites, beeswax, Arabic gum and flower petals to soak their nails for hours to get the desired hue. 

The ancient Egyptians, too, were advocates of nail color, staining them with henna. Lore has it that Nefertiti and Cleopatra wore shades of red, which is only fitting. 

Jump forward to 1920, France. Michelle Menard adapted the enamel used to paint cars to a less high-tech and permanent version for nails, which was popular among flappers. Menard came to America, where she perfected her formula, which became part of a company later called Revlon. 

Thanks to Technicolor television and the immense popularity of glamorous actresses like Bette Davis (left), nail polish became an essential in the realm of high fashion. To no surprise, red was the most in vogue, as popularized by Rita Hayworth (right). 

In 1976, the French manicure debuted on the runways in Paris and was an immediate hit. The market begged for a more versatile style, and the natural look fit the bill. 

In the '70s, '80s and '90s, black nail polish was popular among the rock and punk band set, evoking their gritty style and music. 

Today, it seems anything goes. Ombre, color blocking, glitter, caviar. Nail art mimics the trends of the runway. There are dozens of blogs and websites dedicated to decking out nails. You've no doubt seen the "signature" nail art pose: a freshly painted manicure energetically gripping the new color's bottle. You can go high or low, O.P.I or Deborah Lippman, China Glaze or Dior. 

As a female, getting or giving oneself a manicure is a rite of passage. Painted nails can be seen on a three year old or an 80 year old, the effect is the same. Think about it: how many times have your nails been painted in your life?

Sources: Illustrated polish, Chinese, Egyptian, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Dior


  1. I love your blog! It's so refreshing to see such a unique post, I really enjoyed reading it :)

  2. Wow, I didn't know a lot of this- so interesting!

  3. This is so fun! I knew literally nothing about nail polish before reading this, and now I'm both informed and wanting a manicure :)

  4. great post! i love nail polish and this was a fun read! it does seem like anything goes right now and there are so many trends. such a fun and quick way to express yourself!
    -- sephora giftcard giveaway

  5. Really interesting - I really didn't know anything about the history of nail polish! It also made me think - I have no idea how many times I've had my nails painted, but definitely too many to keep track of!

  6. I love it!!!


  7. great post!

  8. I love how much I learned from this post! I have had a similar wondering about the history of makeup. I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog, I'm really looking forward to reading more! And now it's time to go give myself a long overdue manicure ;)

  9. Great post - I've spent the morning fighting with an ages old CoverGirl polish that is past its prime - but that I love too much to let go.
    My Sunday rituals are all about feeling well prepped and polished: manicure done, outfits selected and lunches made. Ready to tackle the week!


  10. Love this post! I think it's great to go always a bit step further and getting to know the reasons of why things are the way they are of why we do certain things
    Very interesting!

  11. Such a great post, its funny how modern conveniences come about-especially beauty products!

    //Birdie Shoots//

  12. this was an interesting post!

  13. Just lovely! =)
    personal style and fashion musings of a LA fashion lawyer living life in the fab lane!

  14. reading this I almost forgot I was procrastinating


Thanks for taking the time to comment!