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When did Women Start Painting Their Nails?

Cathy Rogers
Cathy Rogers

Nail painting first became fashionable in the U.S. in the 1920s with the introduction of automobile paint. Prior to that period, women sometimes tinted their nails with red oil or added gloss with tinted creams or powders. The trend toward women painting their nails was popular in France before it became common in the U.S. By 1925, women painting their nails could use a rosy red color which was normally applied only to the center of the nail and not to the moons.

Two alternatives hit the beauty market in 1927: a rose colored cream and a tube of white, chalky liquid to be applied under the nail tip. The latter produced a look similar to a French manicure. By the 1930s, a team of brothers invented a variety of nail colors and founded the Revlon Company. A few years later, Max Factor created several dark colors designed to cover the entire nail.

Nail painting first became popular in the 1920's.
Nail painting first became popular in the 1920's.

Actress Rita Hayworth popularized the look of long, red nails in the 1940s. By 1945, Max Factor added various colors to its line including pink, red and other colors. In the early 1950s the traditional manicure involved polish that did not cover the moon of the nail or the tip. Manicurists worked in barber shops. Artificial nails were introduced in the 1970s, first on the West coast.

Long, red nails were popular in the 1940's.
Long, red nails were popular in the 1940's.

The trend toward nail painting in the U.S. has varied over the years. It wasn't until the 1940s that the average American woman dared paint her nails. However, the trend continued into the 1960s. Then younger women tended toward a more natural look in makeup and hair, so nail painting was not as popular. The 1980s brought another upswing in the nail painting industry, though. During this time, acrylic nails and the French manicure became popular.

A woman getting her nails painted.
A woman getting her nails painted.

The history of nail painting dates back to the Chinese, when as early as 3000 B.C. royals used a variety of substances including flower petals, beeswax, egg whites, silver and gold to tint their nails. In Egypt, both men and women colored their nails, with color indicating social status. The royals used darker colors for painting their nails, while the lower classes used paler tones.

Discussion Comments


I am a 57 year old male and I go with my wife every two or three weeks to get a pedicure, I have been doing this now for about two years, I started out getting clear polish on my nails and then about four or five months ago began to have them painted with either Chrome, Gold, or Copper colors.

I enjoy having them painted colors because it seems to look nicer to me than nasty old nails all the women think it is great that first of all a man will get a pedi with his wife and secondly that I am not so macho that I am afraid to have my toenails painted.

As someone posted earlier it is only color and I read where it was not only Royalty that did it but also Warriors!

Come on Warrior Dudes paint those nails!


I totally agree with the first poster - Anon: some men can and do wear their nails polished. I do. I just enjoy the way my feet look when taken care of (regular pedicures) and with polish. In my case, I don't wear brighter 'loud' colors, mostly earthy tones like olive, gray, black and even dark green and blue.

I have been following this topic for a while now and I see more and more instances where men are beginning to break the social boundaries and have their nails polished, especially in trend-leading places like NYC and LA. I don't live in either of those places but still enjoy compliments on my nails, another reason why I like them that way.

I predict we'll see a lot more of this in the coming years, men are not the boring, dull people that our past relatives have been -- we're artistic and like to have fun too!


Actually, it was not women who first painted their nails; it was men.

So this statement is not all that correct. " But apparently, not all women could paint their nails at that time. Only women of higher classes were allowed to do it." It was first worn by men to set a social class then adopted by both men and women.

Depending on the culture, different colors meant different social class. It's only a modern-day trend for females to wear polish on their nails. Even today, I think both men and women should wear polish if they want to. It's just shame due in part by social and parental programming that both sexes can't wear nail polish.

I for one, am starting to buck the women only social programming by wearing polish and it's nice to read that other men are too, because it's only color.


For me, it was pretty interesting to know that only royalty could paint their nails. It almost makes me feel like royalty. But I'm glad it's not like back in the day when it was kind of difficult to get nail polish.

If I had lived back in those days, I would have probably gone crazy because I cannot live without painting my nails! I'm just the type of person who always wants a different design on them every week, so me not having that is pretty difficult.


Is it true that women in Western Europe (e.g. Holland, Germany, Belgium) tend to shy away from painting their nails because it might look tacky?


@cloudel: I work at the nail salon and I see a lot of people whose nails are yellow. Yes, you need to put a base coat to help them from becoming so yellow. When you remove your polish, you need to buff your nails before polishing them again.

If you buff and the nails are still yellow, this is what I do at the nail salon. I take a nail file and buff the top layer of the nails, then use the buffer to smooth them out. That should help them from looking so yellow, but be careful how much you buff it with the nail filer. Too much can hurt your nails. I hope this can help anyone.


@cloudel – Have you tried using a base coat? It is supposed to keep the pigment from soaking into your nail bed.

I also wear nail polish all the time, but it's just because I like to decorate them. I get pretty fancy with it. I don't like wearing solid colors, unless they are unusual, so I use nail art pens to do stripes, flowers, and various designs.

I get a lot of compliments. I'm sure that if I had been around back in the twenties and had painted my nails like this, I would have been kicked out of the community, though! It's nice that artistic freedom extends to the nails these days.


Well, I'm glad that painted nails are no longer considered racy. I could not do without my nail polish.

Several years ago, I added food coloring to some white polish to make a unique color. It stained my nails extremely yellow, and I have had to keep them painted ever since. I know that the stained portion must have grown out by now, but perhaps the paint I keep applying makes them stay yellow, because every time I remove my polish, the nails are so ugly.


It's strange to me that women used to avoid painting the moons. To me, that would make the nail polish job look unfinished.

I understand painting the moons and tips a different color for decorative reasons, but avoiding them altogether just seems odd. I like to cover my entire nails with paint.


I think it is funny that the color red had so much significance decades ago. I know a few elderly people today that still associate wearing red makeup or nail polish with being promiscuous. It's just a color!


My instructor at beauty school said that the Chinese were the first ones to come up with nail polish, around 3000 BC!

It wasn't like the nail polish we know of today, I think it was more like colored silk wraps for nails. But apparently, not all women could paint their nails at that time. Only women of higher classes were allowed to do it.

I guess we're lucky because nail polish is easy to access now and anyone can use it, even men.


@turquoise-- Nail painting definitely goes farther back than the 1920s.

My theory is that henna was the first form of nail color. When the powder of the henna plant is mixed with water and applied on the skin, nails or hair, it tints it to a reddish color. Henna or mehndi hand paints are still popular today. And henna has been used by women for hundreds of years.

Using a red liquid to color the skin of the hands, feet, and the nails was also common in ancient India. It is still done today, especially for brides. Nail polish might have been discovered in the 1920s, but coloring nails has been around since much before.

Oh, women have only been painting their nails since 1920?! For some reason, I thought it went farther back than that. Thanks for the information!


Well I agree that all of these do look good, but I was looking more for a history of it, like what year it started and what was the significance of painting fingernails.

Also now that I think about it, it is more difficult to do stuff with them on!


Oasis11 - You know I have never experimented with those types of nail tips either.

I sometimes just get a clear gloss and a nail hardener in order to protect my nails. If you file your nails and remove your cuticles often and moisturize your hands with hand therapy by Crabtree and Evelyn then your hands should look great.

I know that a lot of guys are painting their nails too. Men always get manicures and they always apply a top coat for shine. I am not so sure how I feel about that though.


Cupcake15 - I agree that French manicures look great on everyone. They really have a nice way of defining the nail.

I have always wanted to have silk wraps for my nails. They look at little more natural then the acrylic gel nails and appear a little classier too.

I think that you have to be careful with getting water trapped in them because it can ruin the silk nails.

As far as nail polish I like anything from the Opi line. The color applies richly and evenly and lasts a long time without chipping.


I have to say that I love to get a French manicure for my nails. It looks so clean and polished and if you have a little tan it looks even better because of the contrast.

I always like natural looking nails and have never used acrylic tips or glue on nails. I am always afraid of some moisture getting caught in the nails and developing some kind of infection.

Also, I want to be able to use my hands and not have to worry if a nail tip comes off or if I accidentally get it wet. For me acrylic tips are not practical. It is hard to clean the house with them on.

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