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The Comforts and Criticisms of Cottagecore

What comes to mind when you read the word “Cottagecore”? Is it images of flowing streams, thatched roofs and knitted cardigans? Or is the word utterly foreign to you? Unlike its contemporary counterparts, Cottagecore looks toward the past and embraces it. It takes aspects from a bygone era and repackages them to appeal to the present day.

Content Warning: mentions of classism and racism

What comes to mind when you read the word “Cottagecore”? Is it images of flowing streams, thatched roofs and knitted cardigans? Or is the word utterly foreign to you? Unlike its contemporary counterparts, Cottagecore looks toward the past and embraces it. It takes aspects from a bygone era and repackages them to appeal to the present day. Its tenets include self-sufficiency, nostalgia for an idealised past, connection to nature, and the revitalisation of what some might call “granny hobbies.” It emphasises domestic productivity, where tasks and activities are completed for one’s own satisfaction and success. It is not reminiscing on the childhood experiences of its mostly Gen-Z and Millennial practitioners but rather a longing for a time and place which existed long before they were born. It is inspired by a fictionalised past influenced by contemporary media, ranging from books and movies to video games and mood boards.

Cottagecore, as we know it today, gained prevalence in the late 2010s, especially during the COVID-19 Pandemic. However, its roots are far deeper than they appear. Its back-to-basics approach to life is reminiscent of the “Back-to-the-Land” movement, which began in the early twentieth century and peaked during the 1970s. What started as growing one's own food to achieve self-sufficiency evolved into various movements. Notable iterations include the “Dig for Victory” campaign of Great Britain and the exodus of people moving from large cities to rural areas and communes in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Cottagecore sentiments go as far back to Ancient Greece and Rome, where famous poets Theocritus and Virgil lament over the depravity plaguing the empires and write about reverting to a pastoral way of living. Another surprising antecedent to the modern-day Cottagecore practitioner was the infamously self-indulgent and opulent French Queen, Marie Antoinette. The queen had a country village, complete with dairy farms and orchards, replicated on palace grounds. While there, she and her guests would dress up as farmers and peasants as a means of amusement.

Furthermore, a portrait done by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun depicts the queen in a simple cotton dress, waist sash and wide straw hat. The initial viewers of the painting were horrified as they thought it was inappropriate and unbecoming for the queen to be depicted wearing clothing reminiscent of the lower working class. Yet this seemingly indecent portrait contributed to a boom in demand for cotton among the aristocracy and wealthy, having abandoned their fine drapery to emulate the fashions of ordinary folk.

It has amassed a considerable online following for a community that imitates a time before modern technology and social media. There is a voyeuristic aspect to the aesthetic that makes it attractive to those unable to immerse or indulge themselves in its fantasy. Online viewers can live vicariously through the accounts of those who can. The hashtag #Cottagecore has amassed over 3 million uses on Instagram and over 8.9 billion views on TikTok. Psychologist Krystine Batcho explains how high stress and intense situations often result in the “longing for simpler situations, simpler periods, or simpler ways of living” as a means of coping. With so much anxiety and uncertainty looming over the future, it is understandable why some choose to romanticise the past.

Frequent lockdowns, job losses, increasing violence, the climate crisis, the spread of misinformation and economic turbulence all fuelled the desire to find comfort in what is nostalgic and escape a reality that seems inevitable. This desire to reconnect with the familiar and tangible was reflected in the baking bread phase of the pandemic. With spare time on their hands and nowhere to go, many endeavoured to learn new skills and hobbies, plenty of which were domestic in nature. Suddenly, hordes of people were baking, foraging for mushrooms, learning how to knit, and gardening. Safe within their domestic bubble, societal pressures and feelings of not being in control of one's life ceased to exist, albeit temporarily. As Youtuber Zoe Bee said in her video essay exploring the aesthetic, “When the alternative is watching the end come, who wouldn’t want to hide among the flowers?” 

This altruistic and progressive aesthetic is not without its share of controversies and criticisms. The erasure of actual history and the romanticisation of eras where slavery, imperialism, misogyny and other injustices were rife can occur are only some of its many problems. The aesthetic is accused of being Eurocentric and heteronormative and does not promote people of colour (POC), queer, or disabled creators with the same fervour as they do with the former.

The idea of homesteading, popular in the Cottagecore community, was made famous in the United States during the 19th century. The 1862 Homestead Act was signed, allowing the United States government to provide an area of land to applicants for US citizenship in exchange for them moving westward. And when the land was not ceded to them, it caused detrimental effects on the different native communities. The settling of the west displaced Indigenous communities, promoted unsustainable farming methods, redirected water supplies, decreased wildlife populations and divided up native land. Settlers reasoned that it was merely “manifest destiny” coming to fruition to justify their actions. Similar reasoning was applied by the British when they colonised Australia and other countries. For an aesthetic that romanticises living off the land, especially in countries subjected to colonisation, one must question, “Whose land does this really belong to?” 

Like any other popular item, the aesthetics associated with Cottagecore are not immune from being preyed upon by large fast-fashion retailers. When searching the aesthetic on Instagram, the first suggested profile is entitled “Cottagecorethings”, which retails clothing made of polyester drop-shipped from international warehouses. While the retailer itself is not inherently problematic, its practices contradict the central tenets and beliefs of the community, which include sustainability and resourcefulness. It is ironic that fast fashion, an industry especially detrimental to the natural environment, is profiting from an aesthetic promoting slow living and anti-consumerism. Additionally, Cottagecore is criticised for being a fantasy only accessible to “wealthy white kids” that want to play dress-up. Most Cottagecore inspired media is crafted for an urban audience, most of whom grew up in suburban environments. Youtuber Alice Capelle summarises the predicament in her Cottagecore that to uproot oneself from their suburban home to relocate to a large rural farm or cottage requires a certain amount of financial stability and privilege. Like Marie Antoinette, the romanticisation of farm life and rural living presents an illusion of a lifestyle that requires challenging work and immense self-discipline, not passive consumption and frivolity. By taking off the rose coloured glasses, the darker side of Cottagecore is revealed.

A vast majority of Cottagecore practitioners are not seeking to harm anyone or anything purposely. There have been numerous positive strides towards diversifying the community and providing a safe space for those in need of it. The aesthetic has become increasingly favoured and proliferated by young queer people and POC. Because Cottagecore is often used as a form of gentle escapism, it allows marginalised individuals to imagine a reality free from judgement, harassment, or violence. Reid, who grew up in Arkansas, expresses during an interview with Vice Magazine how he felt alienated by his close-minded community.  “It especially makes me feel like the things I loved in childhood, like having farm animals, picking blackberries in the fields, and getting lost in the woods, are cis- and hetero-coded. So for me, Cottagecore is an ideal where I can be visibly queer in rural spaces,” said Reid. Youtuber Rowan Ellis explains in her analysis video that the escapist allure of Cottagecore can be considered self-care and that “it doesn’t mean that you’re turning your back on an unjust reality or claiming that there isn’t more work to be done.” She says, “You can protest, march, educate, and fight, but you can also find something that brings you joy and solace.” On Instagram, Noemie Se´rieux created a page entitled “Cottagecoreblackfolks”, which aims to promote smaller Black Cottagecore creators. Currently, it has amassed a following of over 17.4 thousand people. Increasingly diverse creators continue to carve new spaces for community and representation within the aesthetic, growing its appeal and fighting back against those who pollute it with ignorance and hate.

 
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