Nail art refers to decorative embellishments of fingernails, while nail art fashion includes designs, paintings on nails, and the length of fingernails. This tradition of decorative embellishments of female fingernails has lasted for over 6,000 years in one form or another. As foot binding and the desire for diminutive feet originated among elites and initially served as an indicator that a family could afford to remove a woman from active labor in ancient China (after 1300 c.e.), some noblewomen also grew their nails long for the same reason. At different times and cultures, these high-status displays, accompanied by the application of brightly colored varnish to the nails, illustrated the fact that these were hands that never had to toil. Unmarried women with polished long nails could expect a good marriage rather than a life as a servant. In ancient China, wealthy noblewomen had long nails painted with gold to signify their membership in the leisure class.
Neatly manicured nails would remain a sign of the leisure class throughout most of the 20th century and among many different cultures. However, like the use of cosmetics, brightly painted nails were often linked to artificiality and impropriety. Even as nail polish became a common beauty ritual, local five-and-dimes offered an array of choices for do-it-yourself applications that reserved a professional manicure for the wealthy.
In the past couple of decades, however, the fashion for long, painted fingernails has been amplified, along with the widespread growth of nail salons than now provide nail art as well as more traditional manicuring services. Nail salons offer a variation of designs for nails in which fancy patterns are added to the surface of the nails. This includes everything from a natural-looking French manicure to elaborate nail art of acrylic nail sculptures, stick-on rhinestones, hologram tips, and dangling nail jewelry for pierced nails. The list is endless, including themed nail art for holidays like Halloween or Christmas that only well-trained, highly skilled professionals are capable of mastering.
Nail salons label different nail styles with names such as Airbrush, French, Tropical, American, and Silk Wraps, in addition to the regular nail polish procedure. Almost every year, new nail fashions are added to the current repertoire of nail styles and, like the clothing industry, certain nail fashions go out of style to be replaced with new ones.
Nail Fashion And Identity
Women across spectrums of race, class, age, and ethnicity have their nails done. But different nail styles are popular among different groups of women. The variety of nail styles and fashions makes individual and group choices meaningful. White middle-class women in middle management and professional positions, on the whole, choose nail fashions characterized by short cuts and light polish with nails that are well kept and are markers of neatness, professionalism, and good grooming. The specific nail fashion of attaching artificial acrylic nails and painting them with colorful and elaborate designs in long nails is especially popular among African American women. Even when these nails hamper manual dexterity, their personal and social impact may be so rewarding as to compensate for this. Given the history of race and labor, African American hands that look as though they do not do manual labor or service work contradict and challenge much of the past. The individual reasons for this preference, however, are highly diverse, reflecting a myriad of emotional desires and aesthetic sensibilities. Everything from Black Power fists to floral designs are popular requests, depending on person and place. In this sense, nail beautification can be read as a means of resistance as well as inscribing identity, along with cosmetic and decorative art, in body aesthetics. Practices in nail beautification can be read as culturally coded styles of beauty that motivate and valorize particular expressions of differences.