Carola Long: Beauty Queen

While flicking through an airline shopping catalogue on a recent flight, I noticed the blurb accompanying a set of pale pink nail varnishes. "For instantly well-manicured nails that speak volumes about you,"it said. In fact, a wash of natural polish is a deliberate ploy to reveal very little about the wearer; it's safe, classic and an avoidance of self expression. "The groomed girl's comfort blanket," says Harrods nail guru Leighton Denny.

This autumn, however, the catwalk collections, and the nail colours that reflect them, are decidedly more dramatic. Fingertips are a convenient tabula rasa for a bold statement you might not be brave enough, or bothered, to make elsewhere, and in this cash-poor climate it's also a refreshingly cheap way to capture the mood of the moment.

So which colours to wear? Trends aside, intense, fiery colours always seem appropriate in autumn, Essie Weingarten, founder of Essie cosmetics, predicts, "darker yet very wearable shades. Think rich merlot, fiery reds and lush plums, along with deep red-browns plus even a hint of gold." The latter is likely to come into its own a bit later in the season, come Christmas (yes, fashion can be that literal sometimes). Chanel tends to spark polish trends and they have created a rich yellow gilt in a metallic pot for aspiring goldfingers.

For now, purplish shades such as deep aubergine, or brownish, rusty hues feel more current than a maroon pinot noir. Try Essie's chocolatey Lady Godiva, Leighton Denny's Forbidden Territory or Mavala's Jasper for brownish shades. OPI's Yes I Can-Can in aubergine and Chanel's Fantastic – an intense, iridescent magenta – are appealing purples. For the indecisive, Nails Inc have a set of four colours – plum, taupe, burgundy and deep purple – that covers most trend bases. Hot name Gareth Pugh has been channelling his dark side by sporting chipped black, gothic nails, but maybe that trend is best left to maverick male fashion designers.