Nail art is, by its nature, kind of hard to miss – so it’s unsurprising that so many have taken notice of the trend, and that it has moved so swiftly into the mainstream. But nail art – the beautification of the fingernails using decals, paint and other ornamentation – seems to have become a particular favourite of the feminist set. The feminist website Jezebel has called it “the last bastion of female-centric beauty”, and high-profile feminists including Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel have both been seen wearing artified talons. At London’s Women of the World (WOW) festival in March, a pop-up nail bar offered manicures featuring female trailblazers such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Aung San Suu Kyi.

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Why is nail art going down so well with empowered women? It could be its credentials as a business for women, by women, with the benefits going to women. As writer Tracie Egan Morrissey pointed out in her article for Jezebel, when practices with large female followings like hairdressing and baking have become viable industries in the past, men have ended up dominating them. But not so in the case of nail beautification. Still, only 3% of those working on the frontline of fingernails are men, so it would stand to reason that it’s primarily women enjoying the industry’s success. (And there has been plenty of success to go around: nail varnish sales have been climbing, and a survey of UK town centres last year found a 16% increase in nail bars on the high street.)

Some also say nail art provides women with alternative outlets for self-expression. Phoebe Davies, a UK artist and the mind behind WOW’s pop-up nail bar, is one of them. For her project Nailwraps: Influences, Davies researched attitudes to feminism and popular culture with a group of young women at a London pupil referral unit. Along with the project participants, Davies developed a set of nail designs featuring the images of female icons. While working with the young women Davies noted that, despite their interest in women’s issues, they didn’t see many opportunities to talk about it with their peers. The designs themselves are thus meant to be “a springboard for discussion,” – discussion that might not otherwise happen.

The ‘Wendy nail’ – a design honouring Senator Wendy Davis, whose hours-long filibuster stopped the progress of an anti-abortion bill in Texas – started one such conversation last month. After posting it on her Tumblr, Austin-based nail artist Meghann Rosales experienced an “immediate and overwhelming demand” for the design that led her to triple appointments over three days and to start selling DIY Wendy nail kits online. “The Wendy nail certainly exceeded my expectations,” says Rosales. “I think a lot of the appeal was being able to reassign something often perceived as so excessively ‘girly’ as a platform for supporting a strong woman and crucial issues of access to healthcare.”

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By the same token, nail art has opened up a virtual space for conversation and personal expression. “Social media and the Internet have [been] a huge factor in nail art’s popularity as they are engaging visually and cause a sense of wonder which gets blogged, tweeted, reported and liked regularly,” says Ryan Lanji, curator of London’s first nail art exhibition, 2011’s Nailphilia. The viral success of some nail art blogs, Instagram and Pinterest pages “has moved [nail art] into a realm of its own, rather than having it be an accessory to fashion,” Lanji says.

In other words, nail art is art in and of itself; it can stand on its own, unconstrained by the conventions of beauty and fashion. As Tracie Egan Morrissey noted on Jezebel, “nail art … might 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 is therefore art for art’s sake, with clients acting as keen patrons. And nail artist Rosales’ experience seems to concur. “When a woman chooses a nail colour and design, she does so because she loves [it] and because it’s what she wants to see on her hands,” she says. “It’s a personal expression that is chosen for her alone.”

Feminism has not had a comfortable relationship with cosmetics: the industry has oft been the butt of feminist critiques for marketing unrealistic ideals of beauty to women. But nail art, in its ostentation, could be read as a rejection of these conventions. According to Janice Miller, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Historical Studies at the London College of Fashion, gendered identities are meant to be seamless and natural; so something like nail art, which acknowledges the “hard work of femininity”, could be understood as subversive. “The idea that something like nail art – so obviously contrived – might be resistance reminds me of the Mary Russo quotation … ‘to put on femininity with a vengeance suggests the power of taking it off,’” she says.

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To explain the recent popularity of nail art, some are evoking the ‘lipstick effect’, a term used to describe how lipstick sales stay buoyant in a recession as Aston Martins sit in showrooms, unsold. In tough economic times, it dictates, people will turn to life’s little luxuries – like a tube of lippy or a lick of varnish – for a boost. But considering all the opportunity, conversation and community that have grown up around nail art, there seems to be more to the story than simple self-love. Forget body hair: nail art might just be feminism’s new frontline.