The History of Nail Polish

in Women and Society

By Angus Trumble

Brightly colored synthetic nail polish first crash-landed in the field of cosmetics in Paris in the 1920s, and for several decades encountered much resistance. The use of color at the fingertips was thought to conceal some sinister hint of racial impurity, or else to conceal the humble origins or grittily obscure shop-floor activities of certain female stars in the Hollywood constellation.

Pioneering advocates for African-American rights felt at first that colored women either didn’t need to use nail polish, or should avoid it on grounds of dignity. Psychiatrists attacked it as a form of self-mutilation; there were objections to color, to color and texture, to the risk to one’s health, even to the extravagant cost, which after all was not all that extravagant—hence its huge success as a global fad.

Twenty years ago the international cosmetics business was worth approximately $20 billion worldwide. Last year it was worth $250 billion. Nail polish and related products—which now include fake nails, ground coats, top coats, stenciled and other decorations, glitter, frosting, and so on—account for a significant proportion of that huge figure, while the constantly growing number of available brands, colors and textures employ ever more improbable names. “Innocent nude,” “I’m not really a waitress,” “Catherine the grape,” and “vixen” are by no means unusual, as any seasoned shopper will attest.

To some extent, through the twentieth century, nail polish went head-to-head with the declining glove trade, but not always. Rather like the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in Britain just now, the two modes—brightly colored fingernails and a bewildering array of styles of glove—managed, via the fashion literature, very effectively to bolster each other, though it was gloves that eventually bit the dust.

I’m not sure that the new Prime Minister need worry too much about this; Queen Elizabeth II remains committed to the wearing of gloves.

Angus Trumble was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and is the youngest of four brothers. Formerly Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, he is now Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. He is the author of The Finger: A Handbook.

IMAGE: Vintage Cutex nail polish ad

  • Marg

    Sounds like it could be a fun read! I own ‘I’m not really a waitress’, and love the names that that particular brand gives to their colours!

    Don’t enter me into the contest as I am not eligible.

  • librarypat

    Mr. Trumble, It sounds like you have a most interesting job. Quite a move from Adelaide to New Haven. I hope you are enjoying the move. I am curious about your book.
    Thank you for an interesting post. Hadn’t given much thought to it, but nail polish/nail are often considered an indicator of your personality and/or character. When I was growing up, back in the olden days as my children say, nice girls only wore clear nail polish, maybe with a french manicure. If you felt daring, you used the palest of pinks. Obviously, things have changed a great deal. Certain styles and colors are associated with particular social or racial groups, but for the most part anyone can wear what they want.
    As for gloves, I really never wore them much or particularly cared for them. However, I have several pair that belonged to my great aunts and probably date from the 1920′s. They are nice and several pair are lovely.

    • Vianey-hernandez

      ohkay yurkool

  • Rachel W.

    Thank you for the giveaway!

  • roger wallace (aka The Nail Doctor)

    We know fingers haven’t changed over eons, but the regard for beautifying fingers, protecting them and using them to make statements has certainly evolved, and one would hope Mr. Trumble’s work brings us right to the present-day, especially in terms of nail care v. nail-fail. Thanks for the opportunity to win this volume, as I plan to buy it no matter.

    p.s. I’m new to this site, but Wonders and Marvels looks like a treasure waiting to be opened. Salute to all your subscribers who’ve been here/done that…you’re my kind of people.

  • Stace

    As an inveterate nail polish junkie, I find this fascinating! Ever since my undergrad days (so many moons ago) I have been known for the rainbow that plays out on my hands regularly. I spend so much time at a keyboard, I get tired of looking at my hands all day, and changing the color of my nails breaks the monotony and makes me smile. Funny how such a small thing can make such a big difference!

  • Linda Harkins

    Interesting topic! Would like to learn more! I’ve always been interested in costumes and fashion design. My undergrad degree is in fine arts.

  • christine (booktumbling)

    My daughter is a nail polish hoarder. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I think we will both be delighted with this book!

  • Cheryl Smith

    This looks like a fun book on a topic that may be taken as pure entertainment (decoration and fads) as well as a serious topic on changing opinions of personal presentation and a BIG financial investment by many of us. I do not use makeup/nail polish myself, but I am endlessly fascinated by the use – good and very bad- that people make of cosmetic decoration. When I was in school, it was the fad to paint each of your nails a different pattern. Some were as simple as a small flower and some were quite complex. Now they have decals to do this but then it was an all night job to paint your nails. The colors that go in and out are also a fascinating commentary on the changing opinions of the American (and international) public.
    I look forward to reading this one, it looks like it will be great.

    Cheryl Smith

  • Jessica

    This is so interesting – looks like it’d be a great read too!

  • Editor

    Thanks Ladies and Gentlemen! The winners are: Roger, Christine, and Jessica! We have another good one up now:!

  • sahar iqbal

    i want all details about nailpolish.

  • William Ryan

    My daughter is driving me nuts,can you tell me if there are down sides.Could she get sick,inhaling the fumes while applying or sometimes if applied she would or could bite her nail or nails. Is there a safe polish on the market??Please help,my daughters nails are getting longer,Thanks for any help… Bill Ryan

  • Ashley_quimby

    I need more information….PLZ!!!!! Write somemore!!! Your off to a good start…
    I would know because I am a VERY famous author!

  • Broookeroseporter

    what! we are not aloud to use .com or wikipedia !:( you guys should make this a .org website so i can use it for school!! :D

  • Esturnerbryant

    when was this article published ?

  • AROOSA223


  • ashley hall

    kind of werid but oooooooooooookkkkk

    • ashleyhall

      it sok not all tht through……………..

  • Maxi Dresses

    As an inveterate nail polish junkie, I uncover this fascinating! Ever given that my undergrad nights (so many moons back) I are actually regarded with the rainbow that plays out on my arms on a regular basis. I devote so much time at a keyboard, I get tired of considering my arms all day, and altering the coloration of my nails breaks the monotony and helps make me smile. Funny how this kind of a small factor could make this sort of a big variation!

  • Les

    It’s interesting to note that the practice of self-adornment, vibrant and widely practice, nearly dropped off the face of the earth around the advent of the Christian era until the time you mentioned in your article. I recently wrote and article myself on the origins of cosmetics as well as nail polish.

  • Les

    I also curated your article on my blog, providing a link to your site. 

  • Patent Agent

    I genuinely adore vintage adverts! Almost as much as those nail polish names.

  • Bob

    Confused :/

  • Guerda Paul

    this info is perfect for my report on NAIL POLISH!!!

  • Naiyla

    Can I ask about your sources? I am trying to do a school project on this topic and have found this very helpful!

Previous post:

Next post: