The curious thing about classics is they seem to be timeless, but of course, what is now a universal staple was once as a passing trend. While red lacquered nails can be a part of your everyday beauty look in any season—in any decade—this was not always the case.
In fact, it is widely recognized that the ubiquity of red manicures emerged out of the Second World War when women in America found themselves on factory assembly lines building munitions, airplanes, and armored tanks—if you're picturing Rosie the Riveter, you're exactly on target. In her concise history of red nail polish for British Vogue, author Francesca Segal estimates that era's reigning red was likely Revlon's Cherries in the Snow or Scarlett Slipper. "Clever crimson-tipped fingers were busy winning the war," she explains, concluding that love of makeup and commitment to hard work weren't mutually exclusive and that red nails were emblematic of getting the job done.
Today, all sorts of people can be found sporting crimson polish, with or without the accompanying red lip of Rosie's day. Whether running errands, working overtime, overseeing a business empire, or even rallying votes in congress like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a perfectly polished red manicure is a power move: red nails mean business.
Of course, 70-odd years after red manicures emerged as a trend, the color has become a classic. However, this isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. With literally hundreds of different red nail polish shades and variants to choose from, it's possible to find the perfect hue for you. Keep scrolling for 26 of the best red nail polishes of all time (plus a few special recommendations from three nail-industry experts), and we're sure you'll find your new favorite.
The bottle looks like more of a berry red than a true classic, but don't be fooled—the polish comes out as bright as the Big Apple.
Pair this signature Christian Louboutin shade with your red bottoms.
Lauren Dunne, co-founder and CEO of Varnish Lane, says the brand's clients swear by this bright orange-red hue all year long, and she counts it as a personal favorite.
According to Sarah Gibson Tuttle, founder and CEO of Olive and June, her community was begging for a classic red, so she set out on a mission to create the perfect one—and this is it! CV has been a fan favorite since it launched in 2019 and is a best seller on its website.
According to celebrity crystal manicurist and founder of Mazz Hanna Beauty Mazz Hanna, this is the most-requested red nail polish shade in her kit.
This shade is fiery in the best possible way.
This brighter Chanel red is a close second when it comes to the most-requested shade in Hanna's kit.
This wine-red hue is a favorite among Varnish Lane's D.C. crowd during the holiday season.
This article was published at an earlier date and has been updated.
Hi, I'm Drew! Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I've spent the last decade living and working in New York City. I earned a master's degree in media and popular culture from New York University, then began my career on the internet as the Twitter voice of Barbie. Prior to joining Who What Wear in 2017 as the director of content strategy, I spent several years leading the social media teams at Teen Vogue and Entertainment Weekly. While my day-to-day is a mix of data analysis, content planning, and creative brainstorming, you'll occasionally find my byline on the site around topics like celebrity fashion, must-have basics, beauty favorites (particularly nail polish), and wellness tips and tricks. My personal style tends to favor the classics: I love crisp white button-downs, sneakers, and skinny jeans—and no look is complete without a great pair of oversize sunglasses and trusty leather jacket. After I finish reading the entire internet every day, I can be found dining out at my favorite restaurants, trying new beauty treatments, or indulging my historical-fiction habit. (I read over 100 books last year—ask me for a rec!)
11 Spring Nail Trends That Always Look So Chic
We'll be re-creating these ASAP.
By Maya Thomas
I've Got Chanel on the Brain: 11 $100-and-Under Beauty Products I'm Coveting
Sometimes you don't have break the bank for luxury.
By Kaitlyn McLintock
If You Think Valentine's Day Nail Designs Are Too Obvious, You'll Love These 15
They're subtle and sophisticated.
By Kaitlyn McLintock
Experts Agree: These 8 New Beauty Trends Are Already Taking Over 2024
Your new GRWM manifesto.
By Morgan Fargo
I Thought This Nail Trend Was Over—These Timeless Designs Just Convinced Me Otherwise
I'm booking at appointment, stat.
By Mica Ricketts
11 Anti-Trend and Expensive Nail Colours That Will Never Go Out of Style
Must-haves for your at-home mani.
By Grace Day
I’m a Pro at Spotting Nail Trends—This Spring-Ready Colour Is About to Take Over
The new soft hue to ask for.
By Grace Lindsay
Rosie HW's Manicurist Says These 9 Timeless Nail Trends Will Dominate Spring
We're entering our chic era.
By Eleanor Vousden