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Why nail bars haven’t lost their shine | Alexandra Heminsley

The high street may be struggling in the face of financial crisis, but the non-ambidextrous will always need a helping hand

A decent manicure has come full circle: from the 1950s when it meant a lady was “properly polished” to a cliched 1980s vampy indulgence, and back again. These days a neat, glossy set of nails are once more the go-to accessory. Where lipstick used to be the one cosmetic indulgence that never saw sales dip during an economic crisis, today it’s the manicure. The difference is that where polish was applied at home in the 1950s, these days it’s more usually done at a quick nail bar pitstop. Recent research shows that while the retail market has slumped for chain stores, there is barely a local high street in the country without at least one independent nail salon.

Fifteen years ago the nail bar seemed like a Manhattan fad – somewhere for women who took the subway in sneakers before putting on a pair of heels for the office. Today it often feels like there is more likely to be a nail bar in your town than a library. Even Brian Moore, a former rugby international and BBC commentator revealed recently on Radio 4′s Desert Island Discs that he is a fully qualified OPI nail technician – he used to run a nail bar in London’s Soho with his ex-wife and continues to wear a layer of base coat on his toenails to keep them neat.

So why have these nail bars become so commonplace? And how long before the gloss chips? There are three typical types of manicure: the regular polish; the gel or acrylic spatula-shaped talons beloved of the tabloid Wag; and the super-cool, bejewelled nail art more commonly seen in either east London or Japan. But the lines between the three are becoming increasingly blurred. Where career professionals would not have been seen dead with a set of “falsies” a decade ago, these days the semi-permanent nails such as gel or Shellac are perfect for busy workers who don’t have time to be tending to a chipped manicure every couple of days. Likewise, these more durable looks are perfect for mums who are more likely to spend their day picking peanut butter out of a toddler’s hair than adding that extra layer of top coat. A set of false nails can no longer be identified by length and predatory-looking curl; they are just as often short and neutral coloured.

Nail art, however, is anything but neutral. Favoured by teenagers on account of the increasingly creative designs favoured by idols such as Rihanna and Katy Perry (last year Perry wore a set of tiny Russell Brand faces for an awards ceremony), they are a look that is considerably harder to perfect at home than a regular polish. The trends – from small jewels to intricate patterns or flags, or sprinklings of glitter, used to be specific to the African Caribbean community, but the rest of the world has now truly caught up. When Adele recently collected her Grammys with long talons painted on both sides (pale on top, pillar box red beneath), it seemed even nail art had gone truly mainstream.

This is where the nail bar’s business model comes into its own: it is incredibly hard for the non-ambidextrous to do a good job of both hands. If you’re doing more than a regular polish, you’re usually going to need a professional’s help. For as long as we live in a world where most people are either right- or left-handed, nail bars are as likely to be as prevalent on the high street as hairdressers. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds