Origin of the Trend: Nail Polish

It’s kind of weird that we put semi-permanent paint on our bodies. It’s kind of weird that we pay people to do this for us, as if we’ve temporarily lost control of our fingers and have to take a break in an awkwardly comfortable massage chair while reading tabloids from 2009. It’s kind of weird that we subject ourselves to the fumes involved in this process, and willingly sit in enclosed spaces filled with them. It’s probably weirdest that this hour-long event is considered “luxurious” and is reserved for times when we need to be “pampered.”

Sounds like a pretty terrible way to drop fifty dollars, if you ask me.

This “posh living” stigma has survived millenia, having originated in China circa 3000 BCE (Beautifully-Invisible), when nail painting was reserved for royalty. Or else you would be literally put to death. The polish, typically red or black, was composed of “a complex lacquer of gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax, vegetable dyes, and egg whites. Crushed orchid and rose petals helped to produce shades from pink to red” (Refinery29).

The super-loaded biddes, namely those living in a dynasty mysteriously called “The Chou,” even coated their nails in gold (PopularNailPolish). The polish mixtures sometimes had to set overnight, which leaves me wondering why they didn’t just try the cold water trick. Then I remember that the wealthy were probably given special training on how to be so patient as to wait for their nails to dry, holding their hands limp in front of them, for half a day. This was a class that most likely followed “How to Hold Utensils 202″ and “Leisure Part 1: Fancy Animals.”

Nail-coloring procedures existed before this ultra-fab technique, too. Take India circa 5000 BCE for example, according to Refinery29, where dying your fingertips with henna was pretty commonplace.  Ancient Egypt, which is so selfish that it has to get involved in literally everything, also used henna (and maybe sometimes blood…?) for nail painting, though those in the lower-class had to stick to pale shades (Inspirationail). Queen Nefertiti was a fan of Ruby Red, and we applaud her for being so bold.

Those living in Babylonia circa 3200 BCE, assumedly just the royals, decked their nails in gold and kohl, which was a lethal component of eyeliner, too! It’s safe to say that nail painting was fancy and scandalous from the start.

For approximately 2,000 years, nail painting, according to the Internet, died. It was probably all the kohl. It reappeared in the 1400s, when the white man discovered the Incas and said, “Alas! These are a people with eagles on their fingers!” (direct quote). Thus, the Incas began nail art, with their painted eagles (Refinery29).

For the next couple-hundred years, shiny was in and matte was out. Probably, again, because only the wealthy could afford to hire Nail Shiners. The trend was documented in commissioned portraits, as well as in a book by Italian painter Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (PopularNailPolish).

Tint returned in the early 1800s, when women attacked their nails with an arsenal of oils, creams, buffers, and powders. The effect was a very pale red (I’m thinking light pink) color that was enhanced by nail-brightening lemon juice. According to Refinery29, ”This minimalistic treatment was in part due to the Victorian ideals of transparent inner beauty, physical hygiene, and moral purity.” TheFrisky adds that polish recipes could be found in cookbooks, which makes me hungry, but also repulsed and confused.

One-hundred years later, in 1932 the first Revlon nail polish appeared. Revolutionary because it’s purpose was to coat the nail, instead of merely tinting or dying it, the polish concept caught on. The idea is credited to a woman named Michelle Menard, who was inspired by car paint (PopularNailPolish). Prostitutes latched on to this snazzy trend and, hey, who knows how it spread from there? (Jealous wives, most likely.) Hollywood loved it, and pretty soon, in typical American fashion, the entire country (sans men, ’cause it was the thirties) was indulging in nail polish.

While the 1960s found pale colors appealing again, in “1976, American Jeff Pink created one of the most well-known manicures for busy Hollywood starlets: The French Manicure” (Refinery29). Then, of course, neon was cool in the ’80s (as it is now), and Sharpie-style nails were appropriately edgy in the ’90s.

Since 2000, we have seen the creation of pseudo-nail-polish in the form of stickers, jewels, and those weird 3D-nails things that I always want to touch. We’ve got scented polish, magnetic polish, polish that crackles, and polish that doesn’t look polished. Glitter is also a common nail accessory, but, really, who’s surprised by that? Ke$ha pretty much called it. If we can glue it, it’ll probably be found on someone’s nails somewhere.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on April 22, 2012.


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