"Love of beauty is Taste. The creation of beauty is Art" - Ralph Waldo Emerson (American poet)

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The History of Nail Polish

Partner in crime Emma has just recently travelled to one of our favourite cities to play in - Berlin. On one of her gallery jaunts she took this photo and I instantly fell in love. I do not profess to know anything about art but I know when I see something I like. This 1930's women oozes glam, charm and confidence to me. Most importantly she's very much on trend with green nail varnish. Cabaret tastic!

"Dora Maar mit grunen Fingernagein"
Photo taken by Emma, Berlin, 2010. Painted by Pablo Picasso 1936.

It got us to thinking what's the story behind nail polish? Obviously it's been around for awhile so I did a little digging and have a few facts for anyone that might be interested.

The idea of colouring nails is an old one. The Egyptians stained theirs with henna and the ancient Japanese and Chinese also stained their nails with various herbal extracts. However, modern nail polish wasn't invented until the 1920's.

The man that started mass producing modern nail polish with the company that is now Revlon was Charles Revson (who was born in the Jewish section of Montreal, Canada until his family immigrated to Boston, USA). When Elka, the cosmetics company he worked for, did not promote him to the position of national distributor, Revson decided to go into business for himself.  Beginning in 1932, the company specialized in nail polish, offering a wider variety of colours than had been currently available. It was marketed through salons, and later department stores.

He and his two brothers (who he partnered with, one was a chemist) employed a French make-up artist, Michelle Renard, who wondered if the new technology used for painting cars could be used to make an enamel for the nails. The revolution in thinking was to abandon staining the actual nail, but instead to paint a hard-wearing enamel on top of it. She managed to create a modern lacquer made of the same nitrocellulose dissolved in solvent, that was used on cars (except not the same strength).

They thought the idea had market potential and set up a factory to manufacture it. Because their nail varnish was created from hard-wearing chemicals rather than from herbs, it had the advantage that it was easy to store and keep - as long as the bottle was sealed and the solvent could not evaporate, the varnish was as good as the day it was created. This went on sale in 1932 (thank goodness - women everywhere must have been delighted).

It was Hollywood that made the new nail polish big. Colour movies had just arrived, and audiences could see their favourite actresses wearing the reds and mauves of the Revlon company, and they searched out the product in the shops. It helped that it was relatively cheap as far as make-up goes. Painting your nails and buying the matching lipstick gave you a bit of Hollywood glamour even if your clothes were cheap. I think it was Annie that told me that this trend continues when a recession hits. Women still manage to find dosh to beautify themselves with small things like nail varnish and nice shampoo.

In the 1960's clear nail polish came in, to give a natural look that complemented the nude lipsticks that were in fashion then. But it wasn't till the late 1990's that cosmetic companies abandoned the idea of matching lips and nails and started producing greens, blues, golds, silver etc. Now it seems that greens and blues are all the rage again.

If you want nails like the vixen in this painting go 1920's and buy fake long and thin finger nails (if you've got them already well done you!). Nails were worn very long and painted in the middle. During this period the nail polish colours were also very bright.


  1. Dora Maar was an interesting lady... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Maar

    I love that jade green. If only I had long elegant fingers.

  2. Wow, Sarah! You've outdone yourself, great research, very interesting info, thanks for that. We all think we're so cutting edge but it's all been done before!