Henna wasn’t used only to color hair during Cleopatra’s day; it was also used to stain the fingernails. Cleopatra herself was said to favor a rust shade, while Nefertiti was reputed to like ruby red. And, like the mehndi used today at Hindu weddings, it indicated that the wearer did not have to perform manual labour. For centuries, the condition of one’s nails has been an indicator of social status.
It is thought that the ancient Chinese perfected the techniques that are still used to color nails today. They used a combination of gum Arabic, beeswax, egg whites, gelatin and mashed flowers to tint the nails. The members of the royal family and nobility protected their long nails with protectors made of silver and gold—a forerunner of the “bling” some of us add today.
Courtesans in medieval Europe used scented red oils buffed into their nails to add to their attractiveness. Inca tribes found ways to paint the eagle onto their nails.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century that nail art reached the level we are familiar with today. In the late 1920s, a woman named Michelle Ménard is credited with inventing modern nail polish. She apparently worked for Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, which started as the Revlon Nail Enamel Company. The product was a derivative of automobile paint, of all things.
From one product, launched in 1932, an empire was born!
Modern nail polish mostly consists of nitrocellulose dissolved in solvents, tinted with pigments. Many other chemicals are added – some with potentially toxic side effects (formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate). Over the past few decades, companies that manufacture nail polish have been attempting to remove harmful substances from their products.
The three largest companies selling nail products in North America today are Cutex, Sally Hansen and OPI. All three sell products for nail care like buffers, files, clippers, trimmers and hardeners. OPI, with its inspired product names, produces the amazingly popular Nail Envy, a hardener that comes in five formulas for dry, sensitive and soft nails, among others. OPI also produces the best-selling nail color in the entire world. "I’m Not Really a Waitress" is a beautiful deep red reminiscent of old Hollywood. Several beauty magazines have speculated that one bottle is sold every hour of every day, all around the world.
Today, we not only paint our nails. For some time now, air-brushed designs have been available to us. I even indulged for the first time myself earlier this year. For Valentine’s Day, I got tiny hearts painted onto my nails, and for St. Patrick’s Day, I got shamrocks. My friend Brenda, who usually wears colors more along the lines of "Lincoln Park After Dark," currently is sporting bright fuchsia with a line of rhinestones glued across her index fingers.
Perhaps there was no more famous proponent of long, beautiful nails than the late track and field star, Florence Griffith-Joyner. Flo-Jo, as she was known to her legions of fans, wore her nails LONG – reputedly six and a half inches long. Her nails were long enough to cause U.S. Olympic officials to deny her a spot on the 200-meter relay team at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
We can’t all be Flo-Jo, but at least we can all have beautiful nails!