The History of Nail Polish – The Whole Story

By Inspirationail

The History of Nail PolishWe’ve been sharing the rather interesting history of nail polish. Manicures have been around a long time and we think the story is absolutely fascinating and worth a read.

A Long Story

This series has gotten incredibly long so we thought we would organize the timeline and make it easy to skip from time to time. Here we tell the whole story… well, most of it anyway and we’ll add the rest as it publishes.

We’ll start at the beginning and give you a brief rundown of the times. Click through to read more in-depth information about each era.

Once Upon a time in India

HennaAlthough there are conflicting theories about who actually invented the idea of colouring nails, we happen to think it was probably Bronze Age India. Henna was used to paint hands for festivals & weddings, it makes sense that the decoration would eventually extend to nails.

Manly Babylonians

KohlThe trend quickly spread to ancient Babylonia where it was generally reserved for the men. The manicure was invented here and warriors often had their nails done before going into battle. In Babylon kohl was used in place of henna and different colours began to signify social status.

Creative Chinese

Flower PetalAround the same time the idea spread east to creative China where they came up with a lacquer formula that included crushed flower petals for a wider variety of colours. Although red was becoming popular, (it was the Chinese that started that trend) black remained one of higher status even in China.

Egyptian Trend Setters

BloodThe queens of glorious Egypt were known for their fine cosmetics and continued the trend towards bright red shades on nails. Red indicated royalty and both Nefertiti & Cleopatra were each known for their characteristic red nail colour. Although Nefertiti favored blood red – literally.

1910’s Functional Nails

1910'sDuring the 1910’s war time necessity left women with little time for themselves. Cosmetics reflected the difficult times and nails were likely left natural, or perhaps buffed to shine. Manicures were a luxury few could afford and many didn’t possess the tools to do at home.

1920’s Roaring Fashion

1920'sThe 1920’s were characteristic for their fine costumes and freedom of expression. This was a pivotal decade for nails as technicolor was invented and the Silver Screen started created fashion trends. Colours were classically feminine, bold and demure at the same time.

Changing the Cosmetics World

1920'sDuring the 20’s high gloss car paint was invented. This led makeup artist Michelle Manard to wonder if it could work for nails and modern nail polish was born. Around the same time technicolor changed all of cosmetics forever by bringing colour to the movies.

1930’s Feeling Blue

1930'sThe depressing 1930’s weren’t as grey as they sound. During the 30’s the use of cosmetics as an affordable way to accessorize became commonplace as women wanted to maintain their femininity on a strict budget. Matching nails and lips provided a bit of fem that was easy to apply and looked good on everyone.

1940’s Workable Glam

1940'sKnown for it’s dramatic glamour the 1940’s was a wartime era with style, modern polish formulas made it easy to keep a little colour on. Women refused to give up their feminine side and similar to the 30’s, cosmetics were an inexpensive way to remain a woman – no matter how hard they had to work.

1950’s One Colour to Rule Them All

1950'sIn the 1950’s Hollywood was in full effect and the sirens of the Silver Screen commanded everyone’s attention. Fashion was super feminine and so was makeup, however nail colour became rather standardized during this decade…nails were supposed to be red.

1960’s Youthful Trends

1960'sAs the war receded into history, the fashion & cosmetic industries of the 1960’s began to look towards young people for ideas. Breaking from the standardized nails of the 50’s, girls opted for softer more subtle shades for nails. Post-war times allowed women time to be women again and cosmetics reflected their return home.

1970’s Au Natural

1970'sDuring the 1970’s there was a movement back towards natural nails as fabrics & patterns became bolder & shinier. However it was an experimental time and often the fashion was anti-tradition. Those who did wear polish choose deeper more ethnic shades but kept it basic in burgundies, brick reds and rusty oranges.

1980’s Colourfully Awful

1980'sThe 1980’s was a time many of us remember fondly as the ‘Time that fashion forgot’. This was a decade of personal experimentation and personal liberation, during this decade with the help of MTV youth culture took over the runways and became the trendsetters. Cosmetics went blindingly bright and nail varnishes came in every colour imaginable.

1990’s Lost Generation

1990'sThe 1990’s introduced us to computers in every aspect of life, including music and fashion. While grungy rockers tried to hold onto the days of amps and drums, a new brand of electronic music took a much more colourful and daring spotlight, a new kind of over-the-top fashion emerged, one seasoned with growing use of the Internet.

The 21st Century – New Millennia Nails

21st CenturyThe 21st Century took the electronic age of the 90’s a step further, using everything from reality tv to party culture to inspire trends. During this decade high-end designers became available to the world, which in turn forced fashion to become even more creative while re-inspiring natural, more organic looks.

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