I pay a great deal of attention to my feet. I simply adore shoes, from my purple satin superhero boots with four inch heels to my plain black flip-flops. I daren't count how many pairs I have or how much I've spent on them. Both will be substantial figures. Yet, I also relish going barefoot: I shall happily potter over the road to the Post Office with nothing on my feet, and I never wear slippers. The effects of an old injury means that my feet are frequently soaked, iced, rubbed, examined, elevated, prodded, poked, and even bandaged. All of which means that my toes are often on display. Consequently, my toenails are neatly trimmed and usually varnished. Sometimes iridescent turquoise, or opalescent gold, maybe chocolate brown, perhaps ruby red: it depends on what I'm wearing. Yesterday, as I pulled a lacquer-coated brush over my nails in steady, deliberate strokes, it occurred to me that I hadn't a clue who first painted their nails, or what it signified. What was the origin of this ritual in which I can indulge on an almost daily basis?
People have been painting their nails for over 5,000 years. It was the Chinese who first mixed together gum arabic, gelatine, beeswax, and egg white and applied it to their nails around 3,000 BCE. For them, nail polish was something of a status symbol. If I'd been a member of a royal dynasty, I would've worn the colours of the house, for example, the Zhou dynasty's colours were gold and silver whilst the Mings favoured black and red. However, had I been born a commoner, I would only have been permitted to wear pale tones, anything else was punishable by death. That seems a little extreme, but I'll remember it should I ever find myself in an episode of Doctor Who.
The ancient Egyptians also adopted a hierarchical approach to painted nails. They used henna as the pigment, meaning that the deeper the shade of red, the more important the wearer. I wonder if my penchant for deep red is an indication of having been an Egyptian queen in a former life? I can't find any reference to ancient Romans using nail polish, which I'd attribute to them regarding it as some distinctly un-Roman, peculiar oriental practice, and thus they didn't do it.
In between Egypt under the Ptolemies and the nineteenth century, the history of those who painted their nails and how they did it has been chipped and flaked away by time. We do know that by the nineteenth century people were rubbing red-coloured oils into their nails and then buffing them to a high shine. I have a nifty four-in-one emery board and nail buffer to do that, but Jane Austen and her friends would have used a chamois leather. Nail polish as we know it evolved in the 1920s. Some bright spark called Michelle Menard realised that the paint being used to spray cars was also suitable for painting onto nails. In 1932 Charles and Joseph Revson and Charles Lachman founded the Revlon company, their first product being nail polish that used pigments rather than dyes. Pigments meant that the product was easier to remove and that a range of colours could be produced. It didn't take long for the trend to catch on.
Red is probably the classic colour for nails, and if you pair it with red lipstick you can have a look that ranges anywhere between 1940s film icon and sultry vixen. Black nails aren't as alternative as you might think. The hip London boutique Biba produced black nail polish in the 1960s, Gucci had its models wearing black nail polish in 1999, and in 2006 Chanel released a limited edition colour, Black Satin. That sold out almost as quickly as the legendary Rouge Noir, made famous by Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Now, it seems, there is very little statement that can be made by nail polish: it cuts across all social divides. But it is worth remembering that nail polish was illegal in Afghanistan under the Taleban.
If you want to know what goes into nail polish, that varies from product to product. However, all nail polish is a suspension of pigment in solvent, with nitrocellulose acting as a filming agent. Various other resins and plasticisers — for example castor oil or glycerin — are added along the way to improve the flexibility and water resistence of the polish. Some manufacturers used to add formaldehyde, but that's now less common, as is dibutyl phthalate, which had been linked to testicular problems, or so I've been led to believe. For polishes with pearlescent finishes, the manufacturers might add mica, or even ground up fish scales. So I should probably remember to avoid giving pearlised nail polish to vegetarians.
Being a suspension, nail polish can suffer from settling problems. You can avoid that by storing it in the fridge. It also makes it easier to apply. Just don't mistake it for hoi sin sauce, okay?
I've found that the cheapest, nastiest, most smelly nail polish remover is the most effective. It's just a solvent, usually acetone. I buy large bottles of the stuff, which is normally bright pink or yellow, and use it with cotton wool. And don't forget to open the window. You should probably do that when you apply nail polish, too.
Seeing as nail polish comes in virtually any colour or finish, and that most brands can go a few days without chipping (after which you'll probably want to change the colour anyway), the biggest hurdle for manufacturers to overcome is drying time. Polish might well be touch-dry in a minute or two, but I need to wait at least 30 minutes after application before I can put anything on my feet without smudging. Painting my nails isn't exactly something that I can do when I'm in hurry.
Anyway, not only do I now know more about the history and manufacture of nail polish, I've also found at least three new colours that I want to add to my collection. Time to go shopping!
Painting by numbers