The last time I found myself in the nail salon, picking away my fingernail polish while my toes were attended to, I wondered why I was there in the first place. I’d been getting my nails done since I was old enough to sit still in the chair, but I’d never before wondered why or how the tradition of painting these collections of protective proteins on our toes and fingers became such a widespread phenomenon.
I knew many of our current makeup trends date back millennia (like the use of eye-liner, mascara, or coloring the lips, face, and cheeks), but nail polish felt so intensely modern that I struggled to imagine that it shared a similar origin. To me, nail polish and nail care are a reflection of personal upkeep and expression, a sign that you take care of yourself from head to hand to toe.
My idea that perfect nails reflect a certain status is not altogether different from nail polish’s original intention. In 3000 BCE China, members of the nobility used beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, and vegetable or flower dyes to color their nails. Roses and orchids often created the desired pink and red pigmentations, and the dye would take hours to dry. Women were known to go to sleep after applying the dye in the hopes that their nails would be dry when they awoke. The Zhou Dynasty continued the tradition from the 11th to 3rd centuries BCE, but the nobility began using gold and silver dust, giving their fingers a metallic shine. This eventually gave way to red and black dyes, but the tradition remained a way to separate the noble classes from the lower ones. Sources dispute whether or not lower classes were permitted to wear paler shades of the nail dye, but there is a census that if peasant women dyed their nails with any darker shades, they would face execution.
Around the same time in 3000 BCE, Egypt also took to dyeing nails and fingers as a strategy to distinguish classes. The popularization of red nail dye undoubtedly stems from Queen Nefertiti, and later on, Queen Cleopatra. Uma Thurman may have contributed much more to the modern obsession with deep-red nails, but she has these two women to thank as the carriers of the tradition. Nefertiti, along with her court, used henna and even blood to achieve their desired shade. Cleopatra, on the other hand, prefered a more striking crimson shade of red. Regardless, it was believed that the stronger the shade of red, the more power the person wearing it yielded. Both queens, as well as other Egyptian pharaohs throughout history, used henna to dye their entire fingers, not just their nails. This would have made the colorization much more noticeable than today’s traditions; consequently, it is understandable why the lower Egyptian classes would have wanted to follow suit. Unlike those in the Zhou Dynasty, Egyptian lower classes were permitted to dye their nails as well; they need only stick to pale shades–likely using berries in their formulas to achieve a pale color–leaving the distinction between classes clear.
Using such materials to enhance one’s natural physique was seen as lowly, something for prostitutes and actresses rather than for respectable women.
By 100 CE, Romans were also dyeing their nails. Recipes for polish evolved to a combination of sheep fat and blood to dye nails red. For context, this is about 70 years after dyeing one’s hair became possible. Different recipes were used to dye hair red, blonde, carrot orange, deep blue, and black. It seems that by 30 CE, dyeing parts of one’s body different colors was becoming even more popular, so it’s not surprising that the trend of dyeing one’s fingernails continued to spread.
There is no evidence of punishment for lower classes adorning their nails with colors and dyes during this time, but the tradition remained one accessible to only the upper classes and nobility. Roman barbers were the ones who clipped women’s nails short and shaped them, which meant that in order for one’s nails to be attended to, one must have the means to pay the gatekeepers of the fashion trend.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, nail polish disappeared from popular European fashion. It was not until the Renaissance that new trade connections with the Middle East and India brought nail polish back into favor in western aristocracies, though with varying popularities. In Victorian England, however, nail polish was noticeably absent. The Victorians generally looked down upon makeup and physical adornment. Using such materials to enhance one’s natural physique was seen as lowly, something for prostitutes and actresses rather than for respectable women. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century, that makeup began to resurface in England. In the 20s, just when women began to rebel against the strict rules of the past—replacing corsets with loose, shorter dresses—in both England and the United States, women began to attend to their faces in new, creative ways, and their nails flashed with color.
Nail polish arrived on the scene in its first liquid form in 1920. A French woman named Michelle Manard adapted the new invention of high-gloss car paint into something very similar to what we use as nail polish today. After experimenting with a few different formulas, her employer, The Charles Revson Company, assisted in perfecting Manard’s work into a formula fully adaptable to nails. The company eventually created a non-streak polish that used pigments rather than dyes, and in 1932, Charles and Joseph Revson, along with their partner Charles Lachman, founded Revlon, giving nail polish its first taste of mass distribution. The company’s very first shade for sale was simply called “cream.” The invention of the Technicolor television in the 40s vaulted nail polish to new heights. Colorful nails became a symbol of Hollywood royalty and glamor, a callback to nail polish’s primeval roots. “Cream” was no longer sufficient; Revlon now sells shades that promise descriptors like “Passionate,” “Privileged,” “Sultry,” and “Ethereal.”
Now, nail salons can be found almost anywhere in western culture, and nearly any shade of any color can grace your fingertips. My initial perception of nail polish reflecting strong personal upkeep is not far off-base from nail polish’s initial purpose as a reflection of status. Nail polish is accessible to the masses in the west, and its trends continue to evolve alongside other cosmetics. Right now, my nails are lacquered with a forest green color for the holidays. I see them with a different lens knowing that their color is the latest sentence in a tale stretching back over five millennia. Although I don’t feel like an aristocrat simply because my nails are painted, next time I get them done, I will feel more like a small part of human’s cosmetic story, rather hoping the polish will tell mine.