Pat Tilley hasn't done the dishes in 14 years. When she goes outside, she puts on gloves -- even in the summer. Tilley won't knit or type. And if something needs to be cut with scissors, she asks her husband to do it. Reaching into her handbag to find her car keys, she often worries about getting a paper cut or a scratch.

"I can't do a lot of writing," she says "because I might get a callus."

You've seen Pat Tilley's hands a million times. One of New York's most famous hand models, Tilley has been the hands of Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Lauren Hutton, Kim Alexis. On the glossy ad pages, her hands open champagne bottles. They wear rings. They hold cigarettes.

Her nails are perfect. And they're real.

Once or twice in an emergency, Tilley admits to using acrylic nail tips -- a widely used practice among women who want to grow perfect-looking nails in minutes. "But it's a phenomenon that I don't understand," says Tilley. Why would anyone want to hassle with long nails just for fun?

"If I didn't do this," she says, "I'd keep my nails shorter."

Her nails already are shorter than they were 14 years ago, when she started out as a hand model. Fashion dictates nail length, and very long nails today are considered a little tacky. Tilley keeps the tips of her nails, the white part, an eighth to a quarter of an inch long at the most.

"Several years ago nails were much longer than you will see today," says Mary Theresa Zazzera, director of the Today's Woman department of Ford Models in New York. Zazzera, who hires hand and foot models for Ford, describes the perfect hand as having "nonporous skin, good cuticles, little to no knuckles, hairless." But, she says the ideal hand has changed: "What you see now is a more active, capable hand, rather than an ethereal, delicate hand."

Still, nurturing long, perfectly polished nails is believed to be a necessary part of a feminine, professional, well-groomed look. In dress-for-success jargon, they're called "power nails." Growing out all 10 nails evenly and keeping them at the same length, however, requires tireless maintenance. And it can become an obsession. An orange stick makes its way into your purse. Every drawer of the house holds an emery board. Rubber gloves become necessary for even the most harmless household work. You find yourself wanting to reapply polish at the office. You begin using a pencil to dial the phone. You give up bowling.

And your instincts change. You begin to reach out with your hands flexed -- to keep your nails out of jeopardy. (Fear of chipping. Fear of imperfections. Fear of having to redo your nails.) Even worse, your nails can ruin your love life ("Not now, darling, my nails aren't dry").

Like high-heeled shoes, long nails are glamorous, but inconvenient.

Does She or Doesn't She?

The fake-nail business in Washington, therefore, is doing a healthy business. While there still are many traditional beauty shops with in-house manicurists, there also are numerous new salons specializing in "sculptured nails." (Californians seem to be trend setters in "nail art." The number of licensed manicurists in Los Angeles County has jumped from 7,020 in June 1982 to 14,402 in June 1987, according to Lois McNeil, a project analyst at the California State Board of Cosmetology.)

"Women in the work force are more image-conscious," says Jackie Randolph, who opened Nail Expression of Washington D.C., a sculptured-nail salon, after graduating with a degree in business from Georgetown University. "And it really makes them feel good about themselves. Nails are the only thing you can look at in totality without a reflection."

Better than a bandage to cover a broken or bitten nail, sculpted nails are popular for those occasions when women feel they will be intensely scrutinized -- their wedding, the first meeting of would-be in-laws, a job interview.

The sculpted nail starts as a liquid that hardens after being applied over your own nail. A full set of acrylic nails costs $50-$65, and application takes a little over an hour. For those who don't want their nails fully covered in acrylic, there are plastic nail "tips," which can be glued to the ends of the natural nail and then overlaid with acrylic for roughly the same price.

But salon pampering can get expensive. At-home nail kits available in all lengths -- from "natural" to "dragon lady" -- are much cheaper, although the outcome rarely looks as nice as a professional job. And if you are a nail-sculpting novice, the nail kit's instructions must be read very carefully, because there are some potential hazards involved in the application.

The materials used tend to be the same -- at home or in the salon. According to an FDA Consumer report on artificial nails, the acrylics are similar to the compound that makes up the pink gums in dentures.

Just as the phony gums are more durable than flesh, the acrylic nails require less daily maintenance than a set of real ones. The hardened acrylic is compatible with polish, so it doesn't chip off the nail; it merely fades away. Even the Princess of Wales, a famous nail biter, couldn't chew one off.

Decorated Ladies

With these Olympian nails, women seem willing to spend a little extra money on manicures and nail decorations. Mere polish pales in comparison. Designs can be airbrushed on nails using stencils or masking tape to create flames, stripes, honeycomb designs, rainbows, palm trees and snakeskin patterns in as many as five colors per nail. Rhinestones and glitter dust can be adhered to the nail surface.

Those interested in the real thing -- 14-karat gold nails studded with diamonds -- can have them professionally glued onto their natural nails. And dangling charms -- like an initial in gold, perhaps -- can be attached to a drilled hole in the nail. They are called "nail rings."

"I hear they are sculpting Mickey Mouse on the end of nails in California," says Mindy Cadou, the owner of I Do Nails, a downtown salon. "But I don't think it will catch on here."

"We do a lot of nail art, from the subtle to the outrageous ... on housewives, nurses, judges," says Candy Foster, owner of First Fingers Nail Salon in Chinatown. She keeps a photo album of hand-painted nail designs available at the salon, but says that most people already have something in mind when they come in. "They usually spot someone on the street with a certain design and they want it for themselves."

Every other week for 13 years, Gaynelle Washington has been getting her nails hand-painted, sometimes with little daisies, sometimes with stripes or wedding bells. Often her nails will be painted to match an outfit. "And, when I was pregnant," she says, "they put little baby rattles on my toes."

She honors her husband occasionally with a special decoration on her thumb: "When he's been real nice and good to me, I'll put his name, 'Eddie,' on there."

Washington, an administrative assistant at University of the District of Columbia, spends $80 a month on her nails, for painting alone. She doesn't need fake nails but often will have a "nail wrap." Considered a less demanding alternative to acrylic, nail wraps are strips of paper or fine fabric -- linen, silk, cotton -- glued onto the nails to reinforce the ends or to mend a break.

"When I get a crack," says Washington, "I'll put Crazy Glue on it and then call for a wrap right away."

A Hard Habit to Break Before handing one's fingers over to the manicurist, there are a few things to know about sculptured nails. Once you go fake, it can become a $100-a-month habit. Just two weeks after the liquid acrylic dries on your hand, you must return to the nail salon for maintenance. As the natural nails grow out, more acrylic has to be filled in near the nail quick. The average "fill" costs $30 and takes half an hour.

"I thought once every two weeks was terrific," says Sherry Hall, manager at a boating association in Virginia. She has a full set of acrylic nails. No more nightly filing and repolishing seemed a dream come true to a busy career woman. "I could do housework in them," says Hall, "short of digging in the garden."

But for many, the bimonthly nail fills either begin to cost too much or take too much time. And many nail salon customers start to slack off in upkeep. "Some people try to get by without the maintenance," says Sandy Eckhardt, who teaches acrylic nail application at her salon, A Nail Affaire, in Arlington. The nails may seem well maintained and clean, but underneath the gleaming polish can lurk the most unappealing gunk.

As the natural nail grows, the fake nail starts to lift off near the cuticle, Eckhardt says. Some clients will simply glue them down even though water already has gotten between the nails. Then fungus begins to grow.

"It's just like mold you might find on bread," says Eckhardt. "It's green and sometimes it's blue."

Washington dermatologist Zenona Mally, who admits to having tried acrylic nails herself, says she has seen patients with yellow and green nails. "If water gets under the nails, they get fungal, bacterial or yeast infections," she says. And if not taken care of, there can be permanent damage to the nail bed.

Many salons offer an antiseptic wash that can be applied to the natural nail before the acrylic. According to the FDA, this adequately fights infection while the acrylic nail is in place, but not once it has begun to loosen.

Well maintained or not, the natural nail suffers, according to Mally. "Your nails underneath these things are like mush. They are very soft and they peel."

Jackie Randolph disagrees. Randolph says the damage to the nail only happens if the acrylic is removed improperly. The acrylic should never be simply peeled off. If nails cannot be removed professionally, Randolph recommends soaking them in acetone polish remover, which makes the acrylic turn gummy. Then the nails can be slipped off.

"After I got them off it looked like I had leprosy of the fingertips," says Sherry Hall, even though she removed her acrylic nails with acetone polish remover after three months. "They {natural nails} appeared thin," she says, " ... and they would bend like paper."

Some people also may be allergic to the acrylics used to make the nails. "The chemicals may cause redness, swelling and pain in the nail bed and the surrounding tissue," says an FDA Consumer article to be published in December. "In some cases the reaction is so severe that the natural nail separates from the nail bed, and, although a new nail usually grows back, it may be imperfect if the nail root has been damaged."

These cases are rare, though. Artificial nails can be kept on for years, according to Dr. Richard Sher, a dermatologist and nail expert who was interviewed by the FDA. Sher does advise his patients, however, "to remove the acrylic at least once a year to give the nails a rest."

The FDA has received only 65 consumer complaints (including nail damage, skin reactions, infections, headaches, sneezing, nausea and coughing) about nail-building products over the past 10 years. No law requires the registration of cosmetics and manufacturers are not required to pass along any complaints they receive. According to John Wenninger, associate director for cosmetics at FDA's colors and cosmetics division, the FDA receives relatively few cosmetic-related consumer complaints. "Most people just throw the product away," he says, "or they complain to the salon."