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When Did Our Nail Art Become the Ultimate Fashion Accessory?

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Main image – Romanshalenkin/Stocksy

Ever since I was a tiny I’ve been fascinated by nails; the idea that you can turn your fingertips into canvases has always been special to me.

The first time I was truly mesmerised by nail art was around 8-years-old. I was visiting family in LA and went to get my nails done — I know, very grown-up! Now, nail art at this time was very different to the scene today.

In the majority of salons, you’d be given a selection of nail art choices, mostly limited to hand-painted flowers and the odd rhinestone. During this visit, I bee-lined for a tiny snowman on my ring finger. Thinking about it, I’m not even sure it was Christmas time, but tiny Tori couldn’t resist a cute snowman. 

I was transfixed by this talented nail tech carefully painting the festive character on my pea-sized fingernail. I left the salon with my polaroid on the client wall, the most adorable manicure and a new obsession with all things nail art. 

 

Image – @amistreets/instagram

 

Since going on to pursue an accidental career in beauty, my love of nails has remained strong. I’ve been shouting trends from the rooftops (or getting a nail story into every pitch meeting more accurately) from the get-go.

But not everyone has always been so enamoured by nails, however one look on TikTok though and you’ll notice this is changing.  I’m calling it the great nail resurgence. 

 


The social influence 

Undoubtedly the biggest shift towards a wide-spread interest in nails is the internet. We are able to take a peek into the lives — and manicures — of people we’d not normally meet. Seeing the glorious chrome that people are sporting for their office job or hyperrealistic, barely-there manicure to trick their managers in their hospitality job. 

There’s a new trend weekly to tempt us into trying new things; glazed doughnut or blueberry milk manicure, anyone?

We’re absolutely bombarded with inspiration. To give you an idea, my “nails” folder on Instagram has a modest 842 saved photos to give me fresh designs at all times. Session manicurist Ami Streets agrees that social media has had a huge effect on the popularity of nails. “YouTube really jump-started our love for tutorials and made it super easy to find and access content to be introduced to new or hone existing skills,” she says. 

“Fast forward to 2023, TikTok has become such a force — the platform has the power to launch new brands, influencer careers and even create viral trend movements in the beauty world coined as ‘aesthetics’, this year the ‘clean girl aesthetic’ has been a particularly popular example,” Streets adds. 

With #nailtok at 6.8 billion (yes, billion) views, it’s clear that the social influence really be influencing. 

 


Innovation acceleration   

Just like the wider beauty industry, the innovations in the nail space have seen astronomical growth. If it weren’t so exciting, I’d go as far as saying the newness popping up in the nail world is overwhelming. 

There are chromes, glitters, foils, decals, rhinestones, striping tape, and various polishes for just about every finish possible. With Korea and Japan often at the forefront of stunning new products and impressive techniques, people want to be the first to coin a new trend and try out beautiful designs.

 

Image – @amistreets/instagram

 

In 2023, nail enthusiasts experimented with syrup nails, velvet finishes, delicate embellishments and aura effects. Many of us running to our favourite nail tech asking if they can recreate a design that even they’d never seen.

Getting inspo from this corner of the world isn’t anything too new though. “Nail art hit big in the 2000s in Japan, where traditions of technological innovation, pristine grooming, and love of kawaii cuteness coalesced in the nail industry,” says Suzanne E. Shapiro in Nails: the Story of the Modern Manicure

Streets also notes that brands releasing products now available to consumers also contributes to this interest. For years, brands reserved new products for pros only, but now they’re keeping at-home users in mind, too; creating products specifically for use at home if you aren’t a salon go-er. “It’s never been more accessible to experiment at home.” 

 


The pandemic prompted a DIY rise 

We’re sorry to bring it up again but otherwise we’d be skipping over a period of time that really shifted the industry. Many of us found ourselves with a ton of extra time and the inability to go visit our favourite salons.

The result? A bunch more keen DIY-ers. Nails are a fun way to pass the time, and unlike other creative beauty mediums (hair colour for example), manicures are temporary and much easier to try at home. 

Of course, the cons to this being unable to support our creatives and the potential damage you can cause at home using professional-only products without any training. But for those who proceeded with caution, the results started a new love affair among many. 

 

Image – @amistreets/instagram

 

Streets believes the benefits to our mental health have something to do with the rise in appetite for all things nails during lockdowns. “Manicures and nail art benefit mental health in so many ways,” she says.

“I believe people have definitely realised the power of this effective act of self care, particularly since the pandemic and lockdown when many had to maintain their nails themselves or were inspired to find a creative hobby to help pass time.”

Streets explains that the repetitive painting motion and focus required for the task has been proven to act as a helpful distraction and coping mechanism, whilst simultaneously calming and helping to alleviate stress temporarily. Not to mention the satisfaction at nailing the perfect design. 

 


Nailed it! 

There are a bunch of influences that have contributed to the sharp uptick in nail art interest. But a lot of it comes down to one simple notion: manicures are an extension of our personality, just like wearing your favourite perfume or showing off a quirky new handbag. “Since its inception, the manicured nail has been an asset and accessory,” says Shapiro.

I know this to be true for me personally. I am the nail gal. The person who 9 times out of 10 has a fun manicure every time you see me. I might not be the person you go to for fashion advice, but I sure am the person you’d tap for nail inspo. It sparks joy and I can’t imagine a time where a little bit more joy doesn’t do a world of good. 

 


The takeaway

In short: the main reason people love nails is because they’re fun. Life can get serious, heavy and full of complicated stuff. Nails, on the other hand (pardon the pun), offer us that childlike joy and artsy outlet that many of us don’t tap into often. So if someone in your life wants to get giddy over a glittery manicure? I’m all for it. 

 

Meet the experts

Ami Streets is a manicurist and nail artist who has become known for her work with celebrities, advertising and editorial clients in the fashion and beauty industry.  A regular on the session circuit, her work has been featured on over 75 covers and in elite publications such as Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar. 

 

Suzanne E. Shapiro is a fashion historian and the author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure (Prestel, 2014). Most recently the historian at PVH Corp. and a former researcher at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Shapiro is a graduate of Vassar College and New York University (M.A. Costume Studies). 

 

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Contributing Beauty Editor

Tori Crowther is a beauty and health journalist and qualified nail tech. The former beauty editor of Popsugar UK, Tori regularly write for titles like Allure, Glamour, Marie Claire, and Women's Health and is Contributing Beauty Editor at Live That Glow. When she's not interviewing derms or writing features, you can find her seeking out the best coffee outside of London.

Expertise: Nails, skincare
Education: Nottingham Trent University
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