The History of Nail Art—And Where It’s Headed

Victoria Moorhouse

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Over the last decade, nail art has become a pop culture phenomenon, showing up everywhere from the red carpet and runway shows to drugstores in the form of at-home kits. But now that the Mani Cam has taken a time out and most designers have been favoring nude polish over any decorations lately, we couldn’t help but wonder: where is nail art headed? To get a better idea, we looked back at important moments in the trend’s history and chatted with experts to get their prediction on the future of nail art. Spoiler: it’s not dead.

Long, acrylic nails were as trendy as perms and bold eyeshadow. This is the decade that launched Nails Magazinea trade publication dedicated to manicures and nail art that’s still kicking today. KISS Nails also got its start in the late ’80s, and the brand continues to create its press-on, pre-designed nails for the runway collections of Erin Featherston and Kaelen.

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Early 1990’s
Celebrities were adopting nail art as far back as the ’90s. “Lil Kim and Missy Elliott wore long nails with a bit of nail art in the ’90s,” says celebrity manicurist Gina Edwards for KISS Nails. “This broke down a lot of stereotypes as a female rapper.” As far as popular designs go, she calls out the “stained-glass look” created with glitter and striper paint that mimicked the windows.

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This was the year that CND Nails—a company known for creating elaborate and extreme nail designs during shows—first appeared at Fashion Week. After noticing nail design was totally missing on the runway, CND Co-Founder and Style Director Jan Arnold tells us she reached out to a “hot new designer” named Cynthia Rowley. “We liked her sense of humor and her sense of style,” says Arnold. “So, we literally just called her up and said, ‘We think you’re cool and that we can do something really great for you.'” CND still regularly participates in shows such as The Blonds and Opening Ceremony.




With appliques and incredibly long shapes like the stiletto, nail art got architectural in the mid-2000’s. “Nails were transformed from a flat canvas and made into more elevations on the nails,” says Edwards. “2D and 3D looks started to soar.” She points to Lady Gaga during the era of her FAME album—you might recall the 2008 “Pokerface” video and her bejeweled nails. “In her videos, she embraced textures and 3D art, which made it easier for others to open up the idea of expressing themselves through nail art.”

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This is the year Jamberry Nail Wraps launched, making nail art as easy as applying a sticker. Anyone who didn’t have the patience to draw on all those crazy designs rejoiced in the fact that they could have a work of art on their nails in less than two minutes. While Jamberry is still around, the nail wrap industry has since grown to include brands such as NCLA and Sally Hansen.


nail art The History of Nail Art—And Where Its Headed


Perhaps the pinnacle of nail art’s relevance on the runway was in 2012, when Chanel showed a subtle take on the beauty trend during the brand’s couture show. Nails were painted with a baby pink base coat and outlined with silver polish. This was the beginning of the clean, linear shapes we’re seeing in today’s shows.


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September 2012
Although it seems like it’s been around forever, E!’s “Mani Cam” was born at the 2012 Emmy Awards, where stars such as Zooey Deschanel (shown above) happily showed off their whimsical designs. But we saw the mini runway’s demise this year at the SAG Awards, after Julianne Moore and Jennifer Aniston flat out refused to participate.

Nude nails reigned on the runway, bringing the trend to a halt in high fashion. But commercially, it was still pretty big. This was the year that Oxygen debuted “Nail’d It,” a reality show dedicated to manicurists competing against each other by creating cool nail art designs.



Nail art didn’t disappear from the runway—it just got a lot more subtle. During Erin Fetherston’s Spring/Summer 2015 show, models wore a stark white polish with one metallic line placed over the nail. We saw a lot of negative space designs, including at Creatures of the Wind.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 12.57.43 PMPhoto: @jinsoonchoi

The Future?
We know that it’s not dead, but “nail art” doesn’t mean drawing a cartoon character on your nail bed anymore. “Nail art is moving toward a more elegant and modern aesthetic using beautiful nail colors or simple nail art,” says salon owner and manicurist Jin Soon Choi. We’ve already seen this start to happen with all of the negative space and linear designs seen during the Fall 2015 shows.

What we know for sure? The definition of nail art will continue to change. So whether or not 3D jewels and elaborate geometric prints will ever come back, only time will tell. In the meantime, pass over that bottle of beige.