NAIL VARNISH is instant fashion in a bottle that won't break the bank. There is evidence that as far back as 4,000 years ago manicures took place in southern Babylonia, and manicure instruments have been found Egypt's royal tombs. Body decoration, including henna as a stain for fingernails and toenails, has been practised across the world for centuries.

Nail varnish as we recognise it is a 20th-century phenomenon. In 1917, Cutex introduced the first tinted liquid nail polish, made from natural resins coloured with dyes. Technology developed and the Twenties saw nail varnishes made from plasticised nitrocellulose (a man-made film-former), but this didn't adhere well to the nail and wore poorly.

In the Thirties, Revlon created a revolutionary opaque nail enamel which used colour pigments, provided creamier coverage and disguised any blemishes on the nail bed. And, in 1939, Revlon, was the first company to co-ordinate lipstick colour with nail colour.

Strongly coloured nail varnish was popularised in the Fifties by screen heroines, and, by the Sixties, pale nails were all the rage. Mary Quant introduced her first make-up range with six nail colours in 1965 and, in 1968, Boots 17 nail varnish was launched with a new non-drip formula. Modern nail varnish formulations are now mixed with synthetic resins for maximum gloss, pigment and wearing properties.

In the last few years, nail varnish has enjoyed a fashion revival. Chanel's nail sensation, Rouge Noir, was first seen on the catwalk in 1994, and became its best-selling product ever. Its cult status rocketed when it was seen on Uma Thurman's nails in Pulp Fiction.

US brands Hard Candy and Urban Decay have been creating "alternative" colours and packaging, aimed at young people. Urban Decay's ad campaign ran with the tagline "Does Pink Make You Puke?" and Hard Candy has a line for men: Candy Man.

Nail varnish can now be glittery, fruit-scented and glow-in-the-dark and comes in all hues.