If there’s one scene in TNT’s strip mall–fabulous dramedy Claws that explains the show’s raison d’être, it’s in the season three episode “Fly Like an Eagle.” After the sartorially adventurous Florida nail salon owner Desna Sims (Niecy Nash) and her Southern belle second-in-command Jennifer Husser (Jenn Lyon) confront a crooked governor about his money laundering scheme, he muses, “I thought you was a Robin Hood with press-on nails.”
They raise their hands and unsheath their talons, wiggling their fingers to reveal their expertly manicured nails. Jewel-encrusted behemoths, the nails are meticulously designed and impractical for all but the most delicate work. “Don’t get it twisted,” Desna replies. “We full gangsta.” “With full sets,” Jennifer adds.
Claws, whose third season concludes August 11, has always been about race, class, culture, and crime. Set largely in Palmetto, Florida, Claws follows the rivalries, friendships, and tensions between a vaguely legal pill mill run by a Dixie Mafia drug kingpin and the woman-led, hole-in-the-wall nail salon that reluctantly launders his ill-gotten gains.
The women have gotten progressively deeper into the criminal underworld, getting the better of the various men who have used and abused them, eventually landing at the very top of the local criminal food chain. And they have done it with full sets.
Claws is the latest in a long line of shows and films that upend reductive stereotypes about fashion by using it as a tool to illuminate the many ways women relate to the world. Like Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada, and Gossip Girl, Claws understands that fashion is more than clothing; it’s utility, iconography, and camp all rolled into one.
Through its flamboyant and ornate costumes, the show has created a distinct aesthetic recognizable as rooted in the real world and yet still all its own. The “Florida noir” setting is a Southern gothic for women who aren’t rich, white, and moneyed. Instead, they are tacky and loud, embracing the Florida heat by reflecting it in their clothing, most of which features bold prints, bright colors, and lots and lots of animal print.
“I try to bring that out in the color palette. In Florida, everybody is in brighter colors and Hawaiian shirts,” says Dolores Ybarra, the show’s costume designer. “You’ve got all these different types of people [in the show], but whether it’s florals or linens, I try to make sure the characters are dressed for the setting.”
The visual language of Claws can be hard to explain without using words like “gaudy” or “ostentatious” or “cosquelle” (a Trinidadian Creole word meaning outlandish or garish), but it’s a highly specific look that is instantly familiar to the women who grew up knowing that nothing beats a hoop earring you can put your fist through. The show’s characters embrace a maximalist approach born of new money: No rhinestone is too big, no jumpsuit too tight, and no shorts ever quite short enough.
Since the show has been on the air, the women of Claws have graduated from laundering money through their nail salon to becoming enmeshed in political intrigue involving a casino, private prisons, and international cartels. They’ve hit the big time, and their clothing has adjusted to match. But even though money can buy you labels, it can’t buy you taste. For these women, more is more is more. Before they leave the house, they look in the mirror and add two accessories.
“Their style now is still true to who they are and where they came from,” says Ybarra. “They’ve started making money but they don’t know how to spend it. Jenn [Husser], for example, can be walking around with a great bag, but she doesn’t know how to pull it together with a look. Money can’t buy style.”
It’s not a coincidence that how we perceive women who wear acrylic nails or loud, bold colors is intertwined with race and class. The audaciousness of Claws’ fashion invokes thoughts of frivolity and excess that exist in contrast to cultural expectations of what women of color are worth. Like the sentiments that drove the zoot suit riots of 1943, black and brown women are not allowed to indulge in overabundance. Any minor decadence must be stripped to retain respectability. The women who fail at this innovate styles out of a combination of innovation and poverty. Sometimes, these looks are stolen and replicated in fashion magazines.
This dynamic plays out in humiliating ways for black women in the real world every day. When Serena Williams wore a custom black Nike catsuit to play at the French Open in 2018, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli reacted by announcing that the dress code would be changed to prevent her from wearing it again in the future, voicing his disapproval as a desire to “respect the game and the place.” The invocation of respect is incredibly charged, and directly suggested that Williams was sullying the traditions of the game by dressing in a way her competitors did not.
“I think about how black women with naturally curvier figures are policed for wearing clothing that is ‘too provocative’ simply because of how it fits their bodies,” says the author and activist Feminista Jones. “While I don’t think white women escape it, we don’t see as much public chastisement of them as we do with, say, the teacher who went viral for what she was wearing in front of her class.”
The statistics bear this out. A 2017 report from the National Women’s Law Center showed that female students of color are more than five times as likely to be suspended from school as their white counterparts, and a follow-up study in 2018 identified dress code violations, especially for curvier students, as a major culprit.
“When black women embody sexiness, even when they aren’t being intentional about it, there are those who react in negative ways because they see us as a threat of some sort,” Jones says. “When we appear to exhibit it, albeit it ‘innocently,’ people have visceral reactions, which is why the kind of policing that happens with Serena Williams or even Beyoncé happens.”
For Ybarra, being aware of these issues is part of the job, and she’s especially conscious to dress Desna and Jennifer in clothing that hugs their figures, accentuates their curves, and projects the confidence of the characters.
“There are a lot of voluptuous women who aren’t your typical size 2 with no breasts and no curves. These women have curves. And I believe Desna has made them feel confident that a woman who has these curves ... can rock this with no looking back,” she said.
Contrast this with the beige neutrality of the Ann Taylor brand and the rich white women the name conjures. The decision to be demure, to rely on colors that do not offend or call attention, is tied up in class-specific ideas of propriety and respectability. What looks demure on Ivanka Trump or Taylor Swift may look “vulgar” on Jennifer Lopez. That’s the way bodies work. But it’s a classist stereotype that only poor brown women wear acrylic nails.
And it would be a mistake to examine the costumes of Claws without ever getting to the titular nails. Culturally, long nails serve multiple functions. As decoration, they give the wearer an additional outlet to express themselves and their creativity, particularly since nail art returned to the height of chic nearly a decade ago. But more generally, these “claws” serve as an indication of luxury. In much the same way that Melania Trump wearing her coats draped over her shoulders acts as a class-specific signal that she never has to raise her arms to do any labor, long nails indicate that the wearer does not need to wash dishes, take out the trash, or deign to do any work that might require her hands. She can afford to wear acrylics that would otherwise be an impractical impediment.
This is rarely literal; most women wearing long acrylic nails are leading normal, everyday lives and tending to day-to-day activities as they always would have. But the nails add an element of opulence that hint at adventurousness, verve, and excitement. What makes Claws stand out is that it situates these nails in their natural habitat: with the black and brown women who made them so popular to begin with.
In an interview with the New York Times, Morgan Dixon, the head of the show’s nail department, said, “People purchase art to put on their walls. Nails are bringing art to everyday people. It’s art you can attain.” Dixon makes sure the nails never match the clothing; they have to stand out against the attention-grabbing outfits because they’re central to the characters’ way of being. As with women in the real world, the characters’ nails are totems they can use to signify their personalities. The nails are camp as high art, and the recognizable aesthetic is anything but accidental.
What makes Claws special is that the fashion is true to life. These women aren’t aspirational in the traditional sense; their clothing is largely accessible to any woman who might choose to seek it out. But that’s the genius of the show’s intentional costume design.
As extravagant as these women’s fashion choices are, they never feel out of place because the characters move through the world as though they belong. While they lean into their new identities as criminal overlords, they also lean into their authentic selves: They reclaim the invocation of “trashy” as a descriptor and turn it around on itself, signposting that they will always be vamps and never give up their big hair and rhinestones.