Why Everyone Suddenly Cares About Nail Art

It’s been popular for ages in African-American communities. But now that nail art has gone high-fashion, everyone’s suddenly discovered it.

Rihanna shows off a manicure.

Fashion’s “it” things inspire obsessions and frantic longings in consumers. There was the “it” bag, which made way for the “it” shoe, which made way for the latest “it” thing: nail art. Pop stars are analyzed almost as much for their nails as they are for their clothes; designers obsess over the perfect nail hue for models to wear in their runway shows; and women across America are rushing into drug stores to pick up the latest line of Minx. But of all the recent, extensive coverage of nail trends, including last week’s 1302-word piece in the “Times,” one piece of background information is consistently left out: black women have been experimenting with nail art for decades.

“Nail art really isn’t a budding trend. It’s something that’s been around forever in the black community,” says Aja Mangum, a freelance beauty and market editor who spent a decade at “New York” magazine. “You used to associate it with being a little ‘hood’ or ‘ghetto fab.’ Now white women are tricking out their nails and it’s not seen that way.” Mangum says she’s one of “very few” black editors in the fashion world — which is at the heart of the issue, she argues.

An advertisement for Sally Hansen stick-on nail strips has only one black finger, off to the side.

When mainstream fashion magazines and other media fail to mention the roots of a fashion trend in the black community, it’s mostly just a matter of ignorance, Mangum believes. To her white friends and colleagues, most of whom she says have few if any other black friends, black beauty trends and common practices are foreign. “They ask why I wrap my hair up at night or why I grease my scalp,” she says.

When it comes to beauty treatments commonly practiced by black women at home, it’s more understandable that lots of white women don’t know about them. But when it comes to nails? As Mangum puts it, black women have long embraced rhinestones and lots of other nail “bedazzlement” for years.

Sophia Panych, Associate Editor at “Allure,” traces the popularization of nail art trends – and their inclusion in spreads in the magazine – back to the runway and celebrities. “We started seeing it on a lot of rock and hip-hop artists. Beyoncé had a big part in it,” she says, adding that high fashion runways seized on the trend at the same moment. “Chanel started by making a [nail] color a fashion accessory. The color they use on the runway usually becomes the trendiest of the season.”

In this case, Mangum suggests, editors and writers may be reluctant to delve into a trend’s roots in the black community out of fear of backlash for explaining it wrong and coming across as racist.

Daily Beast and Newsweek fashion critic Robin Givhan, who’s written extensively on the issue of race in fashion, agrees that the nail trend “crossed some kind of threshold” that’s brought it into the consciousness of the mainstream media, but suggests that may be related more to class than race: “Maybe it crossed some class line, as opposed to having crossed a racial line.”

In fact, she says that ascribing a trend’s origins to a certain race or group can actually be damaging.

“You have to be very careful in claiming that any group of people owns a look, or claiming that you have to pay homage to them,” she says. “I think it depends on what the story is. If you’re writing about the popularity of nail art, I don’t know that it is mandatory that you trace the lineage of it, unless that’s the kind of story you are writing.”

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