Stripes at Gareth Pugh. Image via inspirationail.com
Getting a manicure used to be a relatively quick and easy exercise. The more elaborate designs were always on offer, but generally directed toward women with two-inch long acrylics and a penchant for frangipanis or Hello Kitty. You’d walk in, ask for classic French tips (without having to specify whether or not you wanted it ‘reversed’ and be out there in no time, before exposure to noxious chemicals could make you queasy.
Now, nail technicians are slapping on rhinestones, snakeskin and photorealistic sticker decals like it’s nobody’s business. They’re using tweezers, microscopes and glue to place tiny foil triangles on the tips and spending hours painting watermelons on one’s nail beds with an artist’s brush. You’ve got Jimmy Fallon schooling Zooey Deschanel on new designs, a documentary in the works and Victoria Beckham giving her poor pooch Coco a green and orange pumpkin-inspired manicure for Halloween. The trend has even given rise to its own category of celebrity maestros, including Sophy Robson from London, Madeline Poole from LA and Chelsea Bagan from Trophy Wife Nail Art in Melbourne. Yes, nail art is very much a “thing” these days – so ubiquitous it’s been hailed as “the new lipstick” by CNN.
The whole nail-painting phenomenon has always been a bit lost on me. Why someone would want to decorate the hard, compacted dead skin cells protruding from their fingers is a rather icky notion, don’t you think? And so my preference remains with naked, trimmed tips - utilitarian, chic and a visceral indicator of stress levels, given my tendency to chew when nervous.
However, perhaps I have been too quick to dismiss it as faddish and frivolous. As Tracie Egan Morrissey points out in her article The Last Bastion of Female-Centric Beauty nail art remains one aspect of female beautification not rooted in making oneself more attractive to men. “[It] circumvents any conspiracy theories of the patriarchy's hegemony because the patriarchy simply does not give a shit,” she writes. Though girls get it, guys don’t.
While other historically-feminine pursuits such as cooking, hair styling and fashion design have given rise to male leaders in the field – Jamie Oliver, Vidal Sassoon and Karl Lagerfeld just to name a few – only 3% of nail technicians are male. As it stands, nail art remains an exclusively all-girl outlet inspiring nail art-themed club nights, entire expos and the formation of groups like Nail Polish Addicts Anonymous (N.P.A.A) - sisterhoods of nail-art enthusiasts whose members meet, froth over “nail porn” and swap and share inspiration pics on Pinterest.
As a democratic art form, nail art also acts as an indicator of what’s going on in society. A stylish set of talons doesn’t just look pretty, it can make a statement. Who could forget the show of loyalty by way of nail art at the London Olympics or Lindsay Lohan’s fingernail message to the court at her probation violation hearing? Why, nail art has even crossed over onto the politico-scene. Celebrities forwent lapel pins and bumper stickers in the lead-up to the recent election, letting their nails do the talking instead.
To borrow a term from Karl Lagerfeld, nail art - like fashion - is an “intelligent frivolity” and doesn’t have to prove itself to be serious. Though your hand may be as steady as an alcoholic’s handshake, there’s nothing to stop you from putting on your artist’s cap and going nuts, proving that anything can be a canvas for creativity and self-expression – even dead skin cells.