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Driely S. for Racked

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An Oral History of the Accent Nail

Six manicure experts on how a painted ring finger became a nail art go-to.

Accent nails crept into the mainstream in the late ‘00s. They offered an inexpensive way for anyone to experience the beautiful (but often pricey and intricate) world of nail art without going full HAM. They were also a great option for nail amateurs who needed to remedy the occasional flubbed nail (hi); a few, some say, had an unexpected sexual significance.

We wrangled a slew of nail experts to weigh in on the history, trends, hidden meanings, and future of the accent nail.

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Sophy "So So Fly" Robson is a London-based nail artist who’s done a lot of editorial work for big-wig women’s magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, Elle, and others. She also designed the new ASOS press on nails series Nail-Its.

Jessica Washick is a New York-based blogger, editorial manicurist and nail artist. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and V Magazine. Washick is also responsible for Harper’s video nail tutorials.

Ayla "B R A S S" Montgomery is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and manicurist. She made the 2012 nail art documentary NAILgasm.

Gina Edwards is a New York-based celebrity and editorial nail professional with Kate Ryan Inc. Her work has appeared in advertising campaigns for Valentino, Alexander Wang, and Jimmy Choo.

Claire "Maniclaire" Beaudreault is a New York-based nail artist and licensed manicurist.

Jes Skolnick is Chicago-based writer and a moderator of the now-defunct LGBTQ manicure Tumblr Femme Flagging.

Prudent Matter

Saving some scratch while still looking fly is appealing to most of us. Many artists Racked spoke with cite thriftiness as one cause of accent nail popularity.

Montgomery: If you go to a salon, artwork [is priced] by nail so it’s $5 per nail, $10 per nail — whatever. A lot of times people can’t afford a whole full set of nails. That’s how they end up with the accent nail — purely for economic reasons.

Washick: You don’t have to do just nail art on the finger, it could be an accent color. [That way] you can have a nail art look without actual nail art, at the same cost as getting your regular manicure. That caught on quickly as well.

Robson: As far as I know, it was a way for customers to break into nail art [when] they couldn't afford a whole set of design. For someone who thought nail art was too [expensive], this was a way of having it on one nail to get used to it. It's also a time-saving thing at events.

Baby Steps

Decorating just one nail with a dazzling design helps ease newcomers into nail art's colorful, sometimes-wild waters.

Montgomery: I think accent nails originated from people who were kind of afraid of nail art, so usually it’s like a gateway. Start with one nail and you work your way to a full set of nail art.

Beaudreault: For people who work conservative jobs or otherwise have a sort of conservative look, it’s a way to try out nail art without going all out ... showing just a little bit of flair without necessarily violating any dress codes for professional or school situations.

Ring is King

The ring finger is usually the go-to choice for an accent nail; no other nail compares. But how did it land such an honor? And will the trend last?

Beaudreault: I have a couple of theories about why it’s the ring finger. Number one, the finger doesn’t move independently, other than maybe typing. You don’t generally use that finger as much as you would, say, your thumb, your index finger. It’s also considered the gentlest finger, that’s why they tell you when you’re applying eye cream to use the ring finger. It gets less wear and tear. It’s the easiest to maintain the design on that finger.

Another theory is that — coming from a heteronormative dating perspective — women might be subconsciously trying to get their boyfriend or their love interest to put a ring on it, if you will. It’s like, "Oh, this finger’s different." Or just to let the world know, "You’re looking at this finger and by the way, there’s no ring on it." It draws the eye.

Edwards: The accent nail started because women usually wear wedding rings on their ring finger. It really just started from women wanting to get noticed for rings on their finger — to accent the nail along with their rings.

Beaudreault: My last theory is just from a design perspective: it’s the most even. It’s not as lewd as the middle finger being painted or the pinkie being painted. It’s balanced, from a design point of view.

Washick: It’s [pretty] symmetrical. The pointer finger’s kinda off, the pinkie is too small. Basically it’s the only finger you can do an accent on. If you think about it as an artist, the hand as a whole, it does look weird to have a different color on any other nails so I think it does have a lot to do with aesthetics. I think aesthetically that looks best.

Different Strokes

Though the ring finger clearly leads as top choice, other nails occasionally get their turn to shine as a hand's sole accent nail. Choosing a non-ring finger sometimes comes with coded social messages.

Montgomery: I mean, I remember when Lindsay Lohan was in court. She had "fuck you" or something painted on her middle finger nail so for sure [different nails can have different meanings]. At least in the US, the middle finger has a clear connotation across the board.

In terms of the pinkie nail, I think it’s more subtle. I know this woman — she’s a doctor — very successful and the only nail art she’ll get is on her pinkie. It’s safe, it’s not too over the top. I hope she’s not doing cocaine. I remember back in the ‘80s, people would grow really long pinkie nails so they could scoop the coke out and snort it.

Beaudreault: I’ve done a lot of events where we’re just doing nails on people and if a guy comes through, generally, he’ll get the pinkie or the thumb or the middle finger. I don’t know why, it’s a masculine thing. A lot of people call the pinkie nail the "party nail" which I think is a more genteel way to say the "coke nail."

LGBTQ Femme-flagging

Some members of the LGBTQ community briefly tested accent nails as a means to "femme-flag" around 2012. These manicures allowed feminine-presenting lesbians to publicly identify as queer, and even let prospective matches know if they were taken and what they were into.

Skolnick: There was a brief moment in time where it [was popular] just among some of the femme-of-center people I knew — but I don't know if that qualifies as a trend? [Nails were chosen] because of "engagement rings/wedding rings" and also fisting… [It] meant you were available, not available, up for certain activities.

Montgomery: Interesting, this my first time hearing about it.

Dapper Dudes

Just as the accent nail affords an opportunity for reluctant women to test out nail art, it can act as a gateway for guys curious about rocking nail polish.

Edwards: [Nail art] is wonderful so it’s not [confined] to just one gender. Men are doing nail art too.

Montgomery: The nail that I’ve seen men do a lot is the thumbnail. When I do different nail art events, that’s the nail guys will typically get done, if anything. They’ll get a fun design on it or just paint it black or whatever. For some reason, that’s the nail most men gravitate towards. I know in rock for sure it’s always been kind of a thing; Snoop Dogg was getting nail art. I don’t know if he’s currently getting nail art.

Who Started Nail Art?

In Montgomery’s NAILgasm, many artists discuss nail art trends stemming from Asian and African American communities, eventually being "discovered" by high fashion. But does mainstream acceptance of the accent equal cultural appropriation?

Robson: I don't think you can say nails are appropriation. I mean sure it used to be big in the black community, but white people have always had fancy nails too. In the ‘90s black girls and Latinos had rhinestones and basic nail art. [Then] there were the movie stars like Ginger from Casino and Michelle Pfeiffer from Scarface. It has always been about an aspiration to glamour and adornment. With the internet, everyone takes something from every culture: the point shape or stiletto from Eastern Europe and the floral style, the London illustration style, the graphic style from Japan, the French tip, the reverse French, etc, etc. Once the fashion magazines and catwalk shows started to embrace it, the media went crazy. It was an attainable, affordable ‘trend’ and that's why it's become so big.

Montgomery: I wouldn’t call it cultural appropriation simply because there’s too many other cultures that lay claim to it. Nail art is huge in Japan. Nail art is huge in Russia. It’s huge in African American communities. You could literally go all over the world and see these crazy nail art competitions and whatnot. So for that reason, I don’t think there’s any one particular culture that can lay claim to nail art by itself. I do think that particularly in the US nail art absolutely came from the urban African American community. Without question.

Then it moved up to high fashion. Now all the pop stars are doing it. It is now mainstream.

Beaudreault: The main thing that’s happening is like anything — like cornrows or lip liner or anything that came from POC communities or urban communities — there is all this appropriation and nail art could be considered in part. It was a thing that was considered sort of trashy by white people until white people started doing it. The cultural appropriation thing is so complicated.

Next Up: ...Thumbsies?

These artists predict that the ring fingers is poised to step down from its accent nail reign, passing the glitter polish crown to the thumb.

Washick: The accent nail has really seen its day. Nail art’s grown so much and there’s so many ways to express yourself. The accent nail has kinda gone all around [the hand]. It’s been the ring finger but [shifted] I think to the thumb. People are doing fun thumb nails.

Montgomery: I know for me, if nothing else, my thumbs are always done because I paint nail clients and that’s the finger that they see. If I’m posting something on Instagram, that’s the finger that gets the most love. [Thumbs] are definitely next.

Washick: With your thumb, it’s fun to do something different than the rest of your hand. It’s off to the side.

I just started seeing people on Instagram being like, "#thumbsies." #thumbsies started being like, the term. I feel like that [started] maybe eight, nine months ago. [Even] just the thumbs being a different color than [the rest of the fingers].

Edwards: It’s basically a personal preference. If you’re talking about designers, like when I’m doing Fashion Week, I usually say, "You can mix it up." It’s all about creativity, fashion, and using your sense of comfort level to express yourself. You don’t have to conform to just the ring finger — you should just have fun. That’s the beauty of fashion.

Washick: We’ll take a break from the ring finger but it’ll definitely come back. In some kind of way it’ll come back. Trends always do a circle.

All interior images: Shutterstock

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