Nail Art, the Last Bastion of Female-Centric Beauty


When historically female-centric practices—like cooking, baking, hair styling, clothing design, etc.—have been legitimized into celebrated careers, men typically end up being the stars who dominate those industries. Look at Emeril Lagasse or the Cake Boss guy or Vidal Sassoon or Karl Lagerfeld. Whenever there is money to be made or creativity to be applauded, men have managed to establish themselves as the authority on things that women had been doing thanklessly for centuries. That is, until nail art, the increasingly-popular, rapidly-expanding field that has almost exclusively remained all-girl.

Being predominantly female is what makes nail art unique from other branches of the fashion and beauty industry. Go to any salon, editorial photo shoot or backstage of a runway show and you’re bound to see professional stylists or hair and makeup artists that are male. You’d be hard-pressed to find a guy doing nails, though. Only about 3% of nail technicians are male, and there are even fewer who are nail artists. (And there’s a difference, but more on that in a bit.)

There’s really no concrete evidence as to why so few men have taken an interest in nail art, but it might be because there was really no widely-recognized glory in it outside of Japan—the mecca of nail art—until recently. For example, with hair, there’s the pageantry of Bronner Brothers hair shows, the promise of owning a salon, and the profit of branding a hair care line. But, for the longest time, manicures were mostly considered to be maintenance. Doing nails was a trade, not a path to fame and fortune.

Perhaps one reason why nail art wasn’t thought to be potentially lucrative is because straight men don’t care about it. After all, the beauty industry is ostensibly predicated on selling women an ideology of appearance that will make them more attractive to men. Men don’t want to fuck you because of the design painted on your nails or the 3D acrylic flowers and bows attached to them. So that pursuit is worthless, right?

And that’s part of what’s so interesting about the rise of nail art. It might just be the only form of primping and grooming that isn’t rooted in making oneself more appealing to men or exploiting women’s insecurities. It transcends skin color and hair texture and face symmetry and body type. (Nobody ever says, “I look fat in these nails.”) It’s an aspect of beautification that circumvents any conspiracy theories of the patriarchy’s hegemony because the patriarchy simply does not give a shit.

Nail art isn’t anything except art for art’s sake. (PBS even recently noted that it’s elevated beyond “craft.”) So in that way, nail art’s growth in popularity has been organic and honest. A subculture was slowly propagated on women taking pride in the work they were doing and their clients serving as enthusiastic art patrons.

And then suddenly, it’s a “thing.” CNN is covering it, a documentary is being made, a healthy online community is dedicated to sharing and ogling elaborate nail designs and celebrities like Lady Gaga, Zooey Deschanel, and Rihanna sporting ornately-decorated fingertips on the stage and red carpet, nail art is truly considered artistry, and the profession has its own set of rising talent, noted for their creativity and mastery of their craft.

Japanese-born, Brooklyn-based renowned artist Naomi Yasuda boasts and extensive list of corporate, editorial and celebrity clients. (She did Madonna’s nails for her Super Bowl performance.) The Illustrated Nail‘s Sophie Harris-Greenslade’s work has been on the runway of London Fashion Week, the pages of magazines, and M.I.A. and Santigold’s hands. She’s recently teamed up with Nicki Minaj to create nail designs for the launch of the singer’s OPI collection. Sharmadean Reid, founder of Wah Nails in the UK, just released a coffee table book of her salon’s eponymous designs. Along with L.A.’s Madeline Poole, Brooklyn’s Fleury Rose, and traveling nail artist Ami V., they’re part of this exciting mainstream explosion of this work that’s for and by women.

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