Brief History of Nail Art


The precise origin of nail beauty treatments seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. Ancient Egyptian women dyed their nails with henna. Women of lower classes wore light pastel shades while those of higher classes decorated their fingernails with deep brighter colours. Babylonian men painted their nails with blacks and greens to prepare for war around 3200 BC. According to the book Nails: The History of the Modern Manicure, archaeologists unearthed a solid gold manicure set in southern Babylonia that dates back to around this period.

brief history of nail art

Around the same time, in 3000 BC, the first nail polish, made from beeswax, egg whites, and vegetable dyes originated in ancient China, and during the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese royals used this brand of nail polish to display their social status and wealth. Moving to the Ming dynasty the Chinese were famous for their extraordinarily long fingernails. Servants performed personal chores for the royals to protect their masters and mistresses from damaging their nails.

Primary sources of nail art also hail from the short-lived Inca empire of 1438-1533. Incans painted images of raptors on them.

Moving forward to the late 18th century the first ornate silver manicure sets began to become popular among the kings, queens and nobles of Europe. By the 1800s Dr Sitts, a European podiatrist invented the orange stick – a simple wooden stick, adapted from a dental tool, and used for manicure.

In 1907 the first liquid nail polish came to the market and by the 1920s many colours hit the market and the lunar manicure was standard right up until the late 1970s. In the 1980s the French manicure style was invented and has become extremely popular since. The social significance of bright red nails has been consistent throughout the years as a sign of the elite.

In the internet age nail beauty has become big business with nail supplies online an nail bars popping up in cities and towns across the globe. The hashtag #nails has been posted over 150 million times on Instagram and nail artists are now in high demand. This ritual of having nails painted by a professional by the general public is a relatively new movement in nail beauty treatment with the first nail bar opening in London in 1999.

With the rise of hip-hop culture, more elaborate designs were painted and promoted by artists such as Missy Elliot and Lil Kim. During the pandemic, we saw a DIY boom for nail beauty art with YouTube tutorials reaching and teaching millions of, mostly women, how to maximize the potential of their nail image. Nail trends are now always changing and evolving due to social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram. Lengths and shapes are changing, extensions are popular, and even different lengths on the same hand is often the norm. Nail beauty culture has more freedom now, and is less restricted by class and social standing.


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