A History of Nail Lacquer: Blood Red Nails On Your Fingertips

Christian Dior Ad by René Gruau, circa 1962  (Image via flickr)

Have I ever told you that I am completely fascinated by history?  I’m not talking about the Civil War and Ancient Greece and the Tudor Dynasty and dinosaurs and such (although I do find those fascinating as well).

No. I am talking about the history of nail polish. Yes, nail polish.

Have you ever stopped to think about how it all began? Who was it that sat down one day, looked at their nails, completely transfixed, and said to themselves “dude, I should paint these bitches!” Okay. Maybe that isn’t exactly what they said. Maybe it was more Yoda-like. “Nails I have. Paint them I must.

Whatever. You get the gist.

So.  Who exactly was it? I wish I could tell you.

The Birth of a Trend

The concept of the manicure began in India well over 5,000 years ago with the use of henna as a nail paint.  This practice spread and was adopted by different cultures.  It is believed that the people of southern Babylonia took it a step-further around 4,000 BC and turned to solid gold to achieve the perfect manicure. Very chic.

Now, let’s flash-forward to 3,000 BC China.   The Chinese viewed nail color as a way to indicate wealth and social status.  They did not use henna or gold, but instead created a base mixture of egg whites, gelatin, beeswax and gum Arabic.   The desired shades were created by adding rose, orchid and impatiens petals.  It wasn’t an easy process and the nails had to be soaked in this mixture for a few hours for the color to set.   According to a 15th century Ming manuscript the colors used most often were varying shades of red and black.

Chen Yu Nail Lacquer Ad, circa 1940. (Image via etsy)

As the years passed, the Chinese began painting their nails the colors of the ruling dynasty. During the Chou Dynasty (circa 600 BC), gold and silver dust was used to create the colors worn by nobility.   The nail was also reportedly inlaid with precious stones and complex cloisonné designs.   It seems that nail color was strictly reserved for royalty in those days. Some sources suggest that if a member of the lower class was caught wearing nail polish they would be sentenced to the death penalty.  Harsh.

Thank You, Nefertiti and Cleopatra

Nefertiti and Cleopatra are remembered, among other things, as two of the most beautiful women of their time.   It is no surprise, then, that they were the first to make something as iconic as red nail polish famous!  During their respective reigns, societal hierarchy was indicated by the specific color worn.  The stronger the shade of red, the more power the person possessed.

Although the practice likely existed earlier, sources suggest that Nefertiti, Queen of  Egypt (14th century BC) colored her fingernails a ruby-red color.  Nefertiti and her royal court would use henna (and sometimes even blood!) to color their nails.  Vampy.

Drawing of Cleopatra (Image via Google Images)

Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, continued this trend into the first century BC.  Unlike Nefertiti, it is believed she favored a striking crimson shade.  During her reign women of lower rank were permitted only pale colors as red was reserved for royalty alone.

This fascination with red polish remained constant throughout history and still continues today.

Growing Pains

The next few centuries don’t cast much light on nail polish trends.  You might say that this was a period of growing pains for the art of the manicure. Nevertheless, there are a few notable highlights:

  • Circa 1500: The Inca’s are credited with the invention of nail art.  You didn’t think that began in the 1990s did you?! It is believed that the Inca decorated their fingertips with images of eagles.  Calling Sally Hanson: new nail strip idea?
  • 1500 – 1800s:
    • A look at the portraiture created during this period suggests that nail polish of some sort remained commonplace throughout the centuries.
    • Although largely unconfirmed, it is rumored that the French manicure made its first appearance in 18th century Paris.
    • By the turn of the 19th century, nails were often tinted red with scented oils before being polished and buffed.
    • The focus eventually shifted away from tinted nails to a clean, polished nail that remained the trend through the 1930s.

1909 Ad for Clear Nail Polish (Image via Period Paper)

Car Paint to the Rescue!

The catalyst for the colored nail lacquer we all know and love was the 1920 creation of high-gloss automobile paints.

Yes, you read that correctly. Car Paint.

A French makeup-artist by the name of Michelle Manard had the ingenious idea of adapting these paints for use on nails.  She played around with the formula and developed a glossy lacquer similar to the nail polish we use today.  Her employer, The Charles Revson Company, recognized a goldmine when they saw one and began work to perfect the formula.  Owners Charles and Joseph Revson partnered with a man named Charles Lachman and, using Manard’s original idea, created an opaque, non-streaking nail polish based on pigments instead of dyes.

In 1932, the company changed its name to Revlon and began selling the very first modern nail polish!

Early Revlon Ad, circa 1930s (Image via Google Images)

The first modern manicure was known as the “moon manicure”.  To achieve this look the cuticles were cut, free edges filed into points, and polish was applied to the nail but not to the moon and tip (see ad below).

Cutex Creme Polish Ad, circa 1937 (Image via Period Paper)

Now, this might come as a bit of a shock to you, but the next big thing to influence nail polish was an innovation that had little to do with beauty products!

It’s Technicolor, baby!

The introduction of Technicolor in 1922 affected more than just the film industry.  Shades of gray became a thing of the past and moviegoers were able to see everything in color.  The actors and actresses.  The sets.  The clothing.  The make-up.  As they “oohed and aahed” over this amazing change in cinema, women were suddenly treated to a spectacular sight – Rita Hayworth’s red lips and nails!

Rita Hayworth (Image via ritahayworth.com)

Every woman wanted them.  Revlon, always ahead of the game, realized this and created an extensive line of polishes to meet consumer needs.

Ever since, the trends of the times have continued to mirror the styles seen in films and television:

  • The 1950s:  Red, red and more red.  Scarlet nail polishes with matching lipsticks were all the rage.

    Lucille Ball (Image colorized by ~ajax1946 at deviantart)

  • The 1960s: The focus moved away from reds and turned to paler, pastel shades.

    Elizabeth Taylor (Image via Google Images)

  • The 1970s: Stars like Goldie Hawn, Mia Farrow and Farrah Fawcett made a more natural shade all the vogue.

    Goldie Hawn (Image via Prickly Thorn Sweetly Worn)

  • The 1980s: This was a time of bold, statement-making colors.  Hit shows like Dynasty and Dallas emphasized bright reds and fuchsias while stars like Madonna made neon all the rage.

    Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington (Image via Google Images)

    Madonna with her neon nails (Image via Calamity Jem’s)

  • The 1990s:  This decade was perhaps defined by a single nail color – Chanel’s Rouge Noir/Vamp.  Tipping its hat to Nefertiti and the idea of coloring nails with blood, Vamp was created to emulate the same color as dried blood.  This dark red and black shade became a cult classic that is still highly sought after today.  In addition, acrylic nails, nail art and numerous colors became the norm.

    Uma Thurman wearing Vamp in pulp Fiction (Image via Flaunt Me)

Superstar Status

Today nail polish has become a superstar by its own right.  There are too many colors, finishes, textures, formulas and methods to count.  Instead of going into all of this, I’ll just leave you with one link.  My nail polish bible: All Lacquered Up.  Michelle is a nail polish guru and is always up to date on the latest releases and trends.  You MUST check her out.

In the meantime, you tell me:

Are you a nail-polish fanatic?

What have been some of your crazy nail-color stories?

How many reds do YOU own?



Wikipedia – Nail Polish

MBM Nail Technician Training Academy – History of Nail Care

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  • Brooke July 3, 2016, 11:59 AM

    love nails and see the history of them and really amazing, thanks for sharing!

  • paul§ September 29, 2013, 5:05 PM

    This is amazing! I love to learn about the history behind things we use everyday, and the history of nail polish doesn’t disappoint. Even though I always admire the way fashion and women’s style evolved over the ’40s-’90s I never think to look to the nails. It’s really come a long way – and I type that as I’m looking at my newly-applied leopard-print Sally Hansen nail strips.

  • Megan August 3, 2013, 7:58 PM

    No problems and thank you for updating. You cant help that people steal them. If you want to use any more of my colorizations feel free. 🙂

  • Megan August 1, 2013, 1:00 AM

    I colorized the picture of Lucy. Fanpop has taken it without crediting me.

    • Beautifully Invisible August 3, 2013, 6:24 PM

      Hi Megan – I am sorry about that! I have updated the credit to link back to your deviantart page. Hope that is OK – you did a beautiful job with the picture!

  • Sky July 21, 2013, 10:59 AM

    Entertaining blog, nicely written. It’s funny, living with your mom and sister you tend to collect an array of reds. It’s a go-to chick color. It’s an essential! 🙂

  • Anne April 12, 2013, 3:13 PM

    Doing research for my website I found you picture of the Dior red nailpolish ad, which you estimated around 1950. According to Vogue http://en.vogue.fr/beauty-tips/buzz-day/articles/50-years-of-dior-nail-polish/14952 Dior started its nail polish line only in 1962. In fact the style of the ad is not really 1950, don’t you agree?

    • Beautifully Invisible April 12, 2013, 3:46 PM

      Hi Anne, you are right. Thanks for bringing that to my attention! The ad is actually from late 1962/early 1963. I’ve updated the post accordingly!

      • Annelou April 12, 2013, 6:34 PM

        Well, we’re here to help each other (ahum). Since I’m at it… I’m not sure but the picture of Lucille Ball looks to me as from the forties/late thirties even and the Hayworth photo is certainly not from the 20’s. Actually, in 1922 she was 4 years old.
        Do you mind if I use some of your info (translated in Dutch) and pictures on my website (mentioning you and your blog of course).
        I read somewhere that in the 20’s and 30’s black nailpolish was considered a normal colour. Do you know anything about that? I have a theorie: I know the filmstars used black lipstick on the film set because it looked better in b/w films than red, maybe they did so too with nailpolish and when people saw this they followed the example.

  • Skye March 19, 2013, 7:10 PM

    Hi i really enjoyed your blog i had no idea that there were so many stages to get the polishes we have today! To answer your questions above i guess i would have to say im a nail polish fanatic but im now moving over to the gel polishes as i chip normal nailpolish straight away! My nail polishes and gel polishes range in colour but i ca honestly say that red is one colour i dont wear alot of to my knowledge i only have 2 red polishes but i have alot of pinks, purples and blues. At the moment i am wearing a gel polish called tidal wave it is a mood polish and changes from green to blue. I hope to read more from you in the future all the best with another great piece

  • Cassie November 14, 2012, 6:04 PM

    Hi there! I just wanted to let you know I found this little run down absolutely fascinating, and referenced it in a blog post I did recently – http://toolazyforlipstick.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/opi-im-not-really-waitress-and.html

  • Kate October 24, 2012, 10:05 AM

    Hi there,
    I’m doing an Extended Project Qualification on how nail polish has developed scientifically for AS level, and was wondering if you could give me a few pointers as to where you got this information from? Would be a great help! Thanks!

    Kate x