How Acrylic Nails Went From Working Class Salons To The Fingers Of The Middle Classes

Photographed by Anna Jay.
I have always been intrigued by long, acrylic nails. As a child in the '90s, I remember going to the market with my mum and seeing a lady in the Caribbean shop with lengthy, curved talons painted in the colours of the Jamaican flag. "How does she wipe her bum?" I apparently asked as we left the shop. Fast-forward to 2019, and nails as loud as those are everywhere, especially on social media. From Fuego Nails to Park Eunkyung (aka @Nail_Unistella), Instagram is awash with artists creating false nails in all shapes and sizes (almond, squoval, coffin, stiletto) and embellishing them with everything from pearls and crystals to pressed flowers. This left me wondering, When did acrylic nails jump out of my firmly working class area and on to the fingers of middle class millennials everywhere?
Despite this new wave of expressive nail fans, falsies never used to be so popular. According to Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure, short, nude nails were favoured in the early 1900s, but the trend was far from aesthetic. This look was often chosen by middle class women to show that they led more of an idle lifestyle; these clean, understated nails were a marker of privilege and wealth. It's not until the 1990s that acrylic nails started to take over beauty salons in the UK, with thick white tips and nail piercings just a handful of the myriad styles available. Interestingly, they too were worn by women deemed idle – but in the most pejorative sense.
For years, false nails have been associated with the lower classes. 'Cheap', 'fake' and 'common' are just a few words thrown around on online beauty forums when discussing acrylic nails, with nail technicians and beauty bloggers regarding shellac or a simple slick of polish as more of an 'expensive' looking option. Marian Newman, CND ambassador and author of The Complete Nail Technician, agrees that false nails were once viewed as tawdry and distasteful in both the industry and among consumers. "There are many different ways of doing nail enhancements, but when they were really long or in the Tippex-esque, French tip style, they did used to have a tacky label. As in the past, I believe there is a cool way and a tacky way of wearing false nails. Social media has made false nails far more mainstream now, and people are used to seeing them."
And things are changing fast, according to Marian. Asked whether she has noticed more middle class clients booking in for false nails, Marian responded: "Absolutely! Nowadays, many women just like to have an immaculate manicure, but they don't think about whatever class [nails belong to]. Nail enhancements are an excellent way of achieving this 'perfect' look. So many more women now realise this can be achieved with artificial nail products."
To my friend Shiv, an art teacher from Kent and originally from a lower class background, the shift of middle class women now opting for acrylics is evident, especially among her colleagues. "It’s funny because a teacher of the local prep school gets her nails done and when I saw them it did take me aback because I thought, Hang on, you’re a middle class white woman. I first got acrylics in 1997 when I was 18. We didn’t grow up with money and my dad was very working class from Scotland. I lived in Lewisham, southeast London, and it was a thing to get your nails done. But I have noticed over the years that because I work in a 'posh school' now, I have received negative comments – especially from teachers. Once, the headteacher popped into my classroom to talk to me about something, and when he commented on my nails, I just got the feeling that he felt I was tacky."
In many cases, however, the association between false nails and the lower classes transcends social status and finds its roots in race. In the early 1990s, a growing number of American hip hop starlets began showing off their acrylic talons – a direct opposition to the neat, nude, French-manicured styles of previous years. Stars such as Lil' Kim and Missy Elliott rocked colourful claws and female fans emulated their idols. Despite the bold, transformative power of long, acrylic nails, they too were looked down on. These lengthy styles have been described by nail technicians and consumers alike as 'ghetto', 'hood' and 'chavvy' but it begs the question: is it the nails that are looked down on, or the wearers, who have previously sat in more marginalised groups? It is evident that nails are more than just nails. At that particular time in popular culture, nails signified the hip hop-loving women before the scene became mainstream, and these lower class women were treated with contempt.

Just like cornrows and wigs, or even bee-stung lips and big bums, acrylic nails are the next in line of once negatively viewed assets of a marginalised group to go mainstream.

Despite the blatant judgement, through the likes of the Kardashian-Jenner clan and numerous others, long acrylic nails are now prominently in the limelight. With growing platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest, these kinds of talons are requested more than ever before – especially by a new, more middle-class clientele. Just like cornrows and wigs, or even bee-stung lips and big bums, long, colourful acrylic nails are the next in line of once negatively viewed assets of a marginalised group to go mainstream. This is yet another example of the middle classes appropriating black culture without suffering the same negative consequences.
Nails are now a lucrative business thanks to popularity among the middle classes. In richer areas of London, such as Soho, booking in for jelly nails, one of the biggest nail trends to blow up Instagram of late, could potentially set you back around £80 – that’s without all of the add-ons, like gold leaf, pearls and intricate silver wire designs. Where nails were once viewed as cheap, they are slowly becoming markers of substance and luxury, and the power of new school hip hop stars and influencers is a bigger factor than we think, according to nail artists. "Celebrities have a massive influence on trends today," said Katie Alice, a nail technician based in Liverpool. "Nail art has become more popular and false nails are becoming bigger and better." At the 2018 Grammy Awards, for example, nail artist Jenny Bui studded Cardi B’s acrylics with Swarovski crystals. Cardi since revealed on Instagram that she sometimes spends up to around £160 on nails in one appointment.
Think of it like this: while you may have lusted after Paris Hilton’s Louis Vuitton handbag in the 2000s, it's Cardi's gilt nails people want in 2019. Acrylic nails are more than simply a fashion statement. They are a status symbol.

More from Nails

R29 Original Series