As long as I can remember, my mother had long nails. For that matter, my grandmothers and aunts did too. It was a sign of maturity, like big earrings and high heels. But it was practically a cultural practice, since most of my friends at school and their mothers kept their nails unpainted and shortened to the fingertip. And until recently, I was still the only one of my roommates whose nail polishes didn't fit in one box.
But suddenly, nail art is the new "it" thing: Runway models have professional manicurists on standby, actresses show off the latest polished patterns on red carpet "mani-cams," and fashion rags profile popular nail artists and brands. The beauty monolith Sephora once confined polishes to space near registers as small impulse buys. Now, nail paraphernalia can be found in its own stand-alone aisle, usually accompanied by a small table so the potential buyer can try different shades, glitters, and effects.
The recent explosion of nail art has been a launch pad for a large online community, created an industry led by women that taps into nail art as inexpensive means of self-expression. I often find myself defending nail art to my friends, but I point out that people can get really creative with nail polish, painting their passion right onto their fingertips. A sci-fi convention is a perfect time to break out a galaxy pattern or you can rock your favorite kid's show with a few clever strokes of paint. Really, the possibilities are endless, and no one I've met so far has done heavily patterned nails in order to attract a partner.
It's not a fashion trend to make you look slimmer or sexier; nail art is for the wearer.
The relatively recent explosion of nail art caught the eye of filmmaker Ayla "Brass" Montgomery. Once an animator at BET, she decided to document the boom in nail art. "I've seen it my whole life, but never like how it is now," she said via email, "Before it was dots, swirls and airbrush designs, now it's full on murals on your finger nails."
Her labor of love turned into "Nailgasm," a short film that profiles nail artists around the globe, the history of nail decor, and the recent impact of the economy and the Internet. We meet arty hipsters in Brooklyn, California girls on the beach, manicurists in the trenches of fashion shows, and a highly sought after 3D-nail artist in the Harajuku District of Tokyo, all pushing the art into new directions and heights of popularity. Nail art is everywhere—we just don't hear about it that often. Once out of that bubble, it's hard to ever consider the same old French manicure again.
But how did nail art climb to the top of pop culture? "The recession caused people to carry out their own beauty treatments," says Montgomery. "It just so happened that the technology of what could be done at home was vastly increasing at the same time which caused a lot of the drugstore brands to explode. On top of all that the internet has made it easier to share our interests with one another." Although polish is commonly associated with high maintenance or beauty industry-induced consumer spending, the recent nail art trend dispels much of that. There are independent polish mixers who sell their custom creations on sites like Esty or Ebay. And since not every nail salon is capable of pulling off a Pokémon manicure, consumers have to do it for themselves, creatively engaging them to develop their own personal style. The aim of nail art is to stand out and to exercise self-expression.
Tut-tut if you want at the supposed vanity of nail art, but the boom in nail art has been a big boon for female entrepreneurs. "What really drew me into telling the story behind nail art is that this is one of the only industries in the world that is for women and is executed mostly by women. There are a lot of male nail techs but over 90 percent are women," Montgomery mused. Nail art is still a very gendered practice. I can't say I've seen very many guys do more than the standard black polish for a goth show. But in that same regard, men do not dominate this industry as they do hair and fashion. Instead, I have often come across long-held stigma that long nails are "trashy," which exemplifies the classist argument against them. Then there's the silly, "How do you use your hands?!" a question nail art fans regularly have a good laugh at.
One the other hand, the popularity of nail art may just be a fad—the real test will be to see if the businesses benefitting from its current popularity can stick around. I'll keep my tri-neon colored and leopard print fingernails crossed for them.
Bom! Pow! Nail art image via Grimmy-Grahams Tumblr!