“Before, when nail polish was chipped you absolutely had to run and get it fixed,” said Ji Baek, the owner of Rescue Beauty Lounge and a manicure doyenne who has noticed the Olsens and Lindsay Lohan with less-than-impeccable polish. Now, clients like hers are “wearing perfectly-tailored clothes, they have $5,000 bags and equally fabulous shoes, but their nails are chipped and they’re saying, ‘I don’t care.’ They don’t want to be too perfect.”
But, she noted, their polish “is so perfectly chipped.”
Being otherwise exquisitely turned out may be the key to making the undone-nails look work. (“Chipping is cool, but chipping in a schleppy way when you don’t have a $5,000 handbag is not as cool,” Ms. Baek said.)
Still, it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Are chipped nails appropriate for everyone? Can they fly during a job interview? A date? A wedding?
“I was raised that a lady should always have her nails done,” Joanne Cruz, a clothing designer based in Manhattan, wrote in an e-mail message. “But there are times when I let my nails chip and I’m perfectly fine with it because I think it looks kinda cool.”
Women have so much pressure to look put together, she wrote. “Now I think sometimes if you’re busy with your day and you don’t have time to get your nails done, it can add character.”
But Ms. Cruz noted that she would never go on a date with less-than-perfect polish, even with someone she had been seeing for a few months.
Kerry Diamond, a vice president for public relations at Lancôme, has watched grungy nails move from models to mainstream in the last few years, and crop up among people in her industry in the last few months. The trend parallels the fashion for more richly colored polish; when the predominant style was nude or pale pink nails, “you could still be wearing nail polish but you just wouldn’t really notice if nails were chipped,” she said.
Recently, a 20-something woman came to her for an informational interview, “beautifully dressed, Goyard bag, Louboutin shoes” with extremely chipped fire-engine-red nails. “It looked like she had definitely been wearing nail polish for two weeks,” Ms. Diamond said, sounding distinctly unhorrified. “This younger generation, it’s not that they’re more relaxed about grooming — they still spend time at the salon — but the grooming rules are different.”
And for people like Ms. Diamond and Ms. Cruz, whose mothers would be horrified at the thought of arriving at Lancôme — or anywhere — with imperfect nails, doing so suggests a level of busyness that’s emblematic of contemporary womanhood. Instead of signifying manual labor, chipped nails may now connote professional fabulousness.
“It’s not easy on your nails when you’re BlackBerrying all the time,” Ms. Diamond said.
Sending the message that your life is much too complex, darling, to bother with maintaining a manicure is exactly the point, said Michelle Markowitz, an aspiring actress sporting artfully eroded blood-red nails.
“When I get my nails done, I like how it looks,” she said. But she also likes less-than-perfect nails “because it shows you don’t really care.”
Of course, not everyone is aware that messy nails are no longer a faux pas. Ms. Markowitz’s former agent in Los Angeles once told her to fix her manicure before an audition. (“I was completely taken aback,” Ms. Markowitz said. “I wasn’t even thinking of it.”)
And it’s really not appropriate for a job interview, said Lorri Zelman, the president of the Human Resources Association of New York. “If somebody wants to go in and nail an interview, they should have a certain level of conservatism,” she said.
But a surprising number of employers seem not to be bothered. A few weeks ago, Chloe Arauz, a clerk at Bloomingdale’s in SoHo, was showing — and selling — $2,700 watches while wearing bright orange nail polish so eroded, it almost looked as if she had just blotted it on. (It was counterbalanced by carefully applied gold eye shadow.) Eight months ago, when she got the job, she asked whether “funky” nails were O.K., she said. (They were). She has never heard a peep about letting her nails go.
Still, Ms. Arauz, a fashion merchandising management student at the Fashion Institute of Technology — where chipped nail polish is de rigueur — said she wouldn’t show up at an interview with imperfect nails.
Jessica Brand, a manager of bed-and-breakfasts in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, also lets her polish fade away. “I don’t think it’s permissible, but I don’t care,” she said. Her friend Amel Ouassel, a French-born interior decorator living in Manhattan, was even more blasé. “It’s not the end of the world,” she said, as she snuck a cigarette — with flaking black-over-dark red nails — in the garden at a party at MoMA.
Ms. Ouassel, with her Gallic chic — skinny jeans, layered black-and-white top, looped chain purse, tiny Chanel earrings — could probably pull off any manner of stylistic quirk.
“A girl with skinny jeans and a great bag looks like she did it on purpose,” said Deborah Lippman, a manicurist who has worked on the hands of Gwyneth Paltrow, Mary J. Blige and Madonna. “Those damn skinny girls can get away with murder.”
Well, almost. “Any of the really great chic girls are still not going to wear that to the Met ball,” Ms. Lippman said. “If they’re nominated for an Oscar, they’re not going to be wearing that. Would they wear it to a wedding? Maybe. But not their wedding.”
So the rules are fluid, but the pressure’s off. Ms. Diamond of Lancôme tries to keep her manicure fresh, she said. But if she misses an appointment, “I am relieved to know that you won’t be judged as harshly as maybe you would have been a few years ago.”
Does this mean that we will be seeing a wave of moms and grandmas with punk rock nails? Not likely, said Ms. Lippman, who for obvious reasons is not a fan of letting one’s nails go.
“I don’t think you can get away with if you’re a woman of a certain age,” she said. What’s a certain age?
“Anybody over 35,” she replied.
There is another caveat to consider. Chipped fingernail polish may be modern and chic in certain situations; chipped toenail polish is still, uniformly, a never-never. Ms. Baek summed it up in one word: “Gross.”