Searching for Colour: A Brief History of Modern Nail Polish Colours

Summer is almost here, which means that I’m finally breaking out my flipflops and painting my nails in fun, bright colours. I’m a fan of sparkles, metallics, and have bought and worn just about every colour or polish (varnish) I can think of, such as lime green, navy with silver flecks, lemon yellow, gold, silver, baby blue with a pink sheen, and black for Halloween. I can remember just about every colour I’ve ever owned (thanks in part to my somewhat photographic memory and my love of these colours). I bet I’ve used over 100 different colours over the years.

Long before Pinterest was sparking my interest in new nail designs I was looking to express myself through my nail colour. I spent much of the 1990s searching for just the right fun colour of nail polish, but unlike today it was almost impossible to find polishes that weren’t a shade of pink, red, or purple unless you stumbled upon a small, relatively-unknown brand in a drugstore or pharmacy. These were typically of lower quality, thicker, less likely to set fully, and chipped easily or peeled off. But within a very short time high street/drug store brands dramatically expanded their selection of colours and, happily, have kept offering this wider range.

red polishes

So I thought that I’d chart how the major cosmetic brands in North America began offering a full range of nail polish colours in the final few years of the last millennium.

Wet n Wild

Wet n Wild was the first widely available drugstore brand to offer a couple alternative nail polish colours. By 1996 they had a shimmery white that wasn’t just for french manicures (which most whites were made for) and a deep navy blue.

Cover Girl

Cover Girl decided to experiment by offering alternative colours that were meant for warm, cool, and neutral skin tones. They produced peach (warm), mint green (neutral), and turquoise blue (cool) nail polishes (I had all 3) and rounded out the new collection with matching lipsticks that changed colour to a shade of pink once applied.

cover girl nail polishes

L’Oréal Paris

L’Oreal Paris came out with a collection of bright, fruity-inspired coloured polishes. There was lemon yellow, lime green, and a bold blue, plus many more bright colours. Thanks to L’Oreal and their eye-catching advertising campaign, there was now a full rainbow of colours available on the market.

loreal rainbow


Chanel held an annual contest with Seventeen magazine where people could send in just about anything to inspire the next big colour, and in 1997 the winner was Night Sky, a deep navy with silver flecks. Suddenly alternative nail colours weren’t just in drug stores but were now being developed and sold in the most expensive makeup counters at high end department stores. All colours were now mainstream!

chanel blue polish

What’s really exciting is that I think we’re starting to see the same thing now happening with lip colour. At Sephora yesterday I was able to compare four dark blue lipsticks from four different brands and already have two from different makes at home. This might call for another blog post sometime soon…

One thought on “Searching for Colour: A Brief History of Modern Nail Polish Colours

  1. Pingback: Searching for Colour: A Brief History of Modern Nail Polish Colours – Irishwomenblog

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