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Cottagecore, or why the pandemic made us embrace rural fantasy

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Writing by Aria Tsvetanova. Illustration by Berenika Murray (@photograberry_)

Thatched roof cottages, pies and loaves of bread cooling on the windowsill as the sun rises over a dewy meadow: these are some composite parts of ‘cottagecore’, which dominated social media throughout the pandemic. Cottagecore is an aesthetic centred around common themes and colour palettes, all usually inspired by media such as Anne of Green Gables, The Moomins, Peter Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows and, most recently, game simulators like Animal Crossing. It is a return to the pastoral in a time when we were all confronted by the limitations of urban living. It embodies the paradox of modern existence: it rejects the globalized world but perpetuates itself through social media, subsequently making it global.

The origins of cottagecore cannot be pinpointed. It is a visual manifestation of an idea, rather than a defined subculture and hence, endlessly applicable to different areas of life, whilst also being porous and undefinable. Having said that, in its current form there are some key periods from which the aesthetic takes its inspiration.

First, Marie Antoinette, the original #cottagecore queen. Much like we are trying to escape the hustle of the city, Marie Antoinette escaped the confines of court life at Hameau de la Reine (lit. The Queen’s Hamlet). While the Palace of Versailles is usually associated with opulence and luxury, the Hamlet is its rustic counterpart, a group of cottages in the Versailles park where the Queen and her closest confidants could enjoy privacy. Popular myth would have the queen dressing as a shepherdess or milkmaid and enacting rural idylls at the farms, but there is little to support that. However, much modern cottagecore fashion such as the flowy multi-layered skirt and white-and-cream colour palette can be traced to the ‘chemise a la reine’ which Maria Antoinette is said to have worn at the Hamlet and popularised at court.

Meanwhile, in 18th century England, the Romantics had a similar predisposition for a return to nature to escape the encroaching Industrial Revolution which was transforming cities and threatening the countryside. Dove Cottage, the home of the Wordsworths, is such a retreat. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and William’s poetry are embodiments of cottagecore ideals: long contemplative walks in the Lake District and seeing the poetry of nature become intermixed with borrowed gingerbread recipes and the knitting of socks.

To this day the ideals of cottagecore remain rooted in escapism. The recent renaissance has not changed that, but rather let us imagine a version of lockdown in which we are in touch with nature as a space for independence and peace. Whether it is engaging with the aesthetic online through images, TikToks and Instagram reels or incorporating it into one’s daily routine through sourdough baking, flower-arranging and meadow-wandering, any participation in cottagecore follows the unwritten rule that the natural world is a balm for worldly cares.

However, more than just being reincarnated in its capacity of escapist fantasy, cottagecore has evolved into a queer safe space, an articulation of a world without heteronormativity. It has become an imagined reclamation of space that has traditionally shunned and discriminated against queer people. For people who have had to leave the countryside due to bigotry and prejudice, it can be a nostalgic return to childhood. Cottagecore, more than other aesthetics like light or dark academia, isolates us from the world and lets us concentrate on creative and peaceful expression of the self, rather than measuring it against the rest of society. Thus, it is easy to imagine a cottagecore reality where lesbian wives share cottages, while nonbinary folk bake rhubarb pies. Because of its interchangeability with nature and domesticity, cottagecore can be used to validate sexuality and gender expression by positioning it in traditionally heterosexual spaces: the kitchen, the garden, and the cottage itself. Spaces previously within the domain of the heterosexual matriarch and her household are now open for the LGBTQ+ community to inhabit and subvert.

To a generation suffering from burnout and hustle culture, cottagecore provides an anti-capitalist escape. With its focus on communal living, creative expression and separation from capitalist centres and commercialisation, cottagecore living can become a way of defining oneself outside of the ‘labour equals worth’ formula. Similarly, a generation aware of climate change can channel ideas of sustainability into the aesthetic, which encourages homemade food and hand-sewn or knitted clothes instead of fast food and fast fashion. In that way, cottagecore can become an extension of the ‘what can I do for the planet’ mindset. However, because of its dainty feminine look cottagecore can be weaponized by the alt-right to enforce traditional gender roles and white supremacist ideology. Browsing the internet for cottagecore inspiration, one can easily stumble onto the tradwives (‘traditional wives’) community, which endorses ‘traditional femininity’, staying at home as well as obedience to the husband. It can even stretch to encompass Nazi ideas of blood and soil. But it is crucial to reiterate that for most people cottagecore is an escape from the capitalist, patriarchal, and misogynist values that the tradwife community seeks to endorse.

An aesthetic is not reality, and is not meant to be and the level to which an average person can experience cottagecore is very limited. The funds needed to rent a cottage and maintain it are beyond the reach of most, and cottagecore in its essence excludes hard physical labour. Work, in the sense of an activity which requires significant exertion, was never part of cottagecore. The effort behind the cottagecore look is masked by its pretension of and insistence on effortlessness. Cottagecore is not only exclusive in its real-life accessibility but also its inspirations. It uses heritage films to draw influence from the lives of privileged wealthy, predominantly white and heterosexual, people.

Not one to be left behind, fast-fashion brands quickly joined the cottagecore trend. Going against cottagecore’s ideals of frugality and hand-sewing, brands like SHEIN have started producing low-quality polyester garments and rip-offs of more sustainable brands. The appeal of these clothes to the casual browser is obvious: they are feminine and innocent, have a handmade look to them and evoke exactly the feelings of whimsy and romance which the aesthetic requires. This look belies the cheap material, the cost to the environment and the poor labour conditions of the workers. Another example would be the numerous rip-offs of Lirika Matoshi’s infamous strawberry dress which flooded the market in August 2020. The designer garment is worth $490 and is, much like the actual experience of cottagecore, unaffordable to most. Low-quality rip-offs produced and shipped from China are still easily accessible more than a year later, including SHEIN’s synthetic be-sequined version costing £29 (a bargain!).

Although the natural cottagecore solution to this would be to turn to thrifting clothes, instead of supporting billion-dollar corporations, the cottagecore renaissance has also inflated the prices of vintage garments. Vintage Laura Ashley dresses are the epitome of the rural quasi-Edwardian aesthetic complete with flowery prints, ruffles and lace. All for the affordable price of £480 (‘minor defects due to age of garment, no returns or swaps’). While raising interest in buying second-hand clothes, the rise of cottagecore has also been a factor in the further gentrification of apps like Depop; turning them from places for affordable second-hand clothes to a platform for fashion gurus selling items at extortionate prices.

The renaissance of cottagecore need not end here, however, its inclusivity and the way it can be incorporated into everyday routines make cottagecore full of positive potential. This begs the question: what could be the next stage of its development? There is already a move away from its traditionally Western values as creators and enthusiasts imagine what cottagecore would look like for their own culture and country. This sort of diversity could come to subvert and discount the problematic inspiration from white upper-class heritage. Furthermore, in opening itself to different cultures and already being a safe haven for marginalized groups, the aesthetic could further incorporate accessibility for disabled people. As picturesque as they look, most cottages are not accessible and ramps are still widely considered as ‘spoiling the authenticity'. However, as it is already entirely an escapist fantasy, the ‘authenticity' of one’s cottagecore ideal shouldn’t be a point of discussion. Further alterations for the sake of inclusivity can only be beneficial and expand the cottagecore movement, not only making it more inclusive, but helping normalise accessibility as a requirement in our everyday lives.

Cottagecore can become a way of imagining a creative environmentally friendly world and incorporating its solutions into everyday routines. Novelist Becky Chambers has already dared to imagine an ecologically sustainable cottagecore utopia in her solarpunk novella 'A Psalm for the Wild-Built': a post-robot-exodus world in which humans live in or surrounded by nature and use technology only as far as it enables their survival without disturbing the environment.

At the heart of cottagecore is a type of cultural hiraeth – a nostalgia not so much for a lost home, but for something that most of us have never experienced. It is nostalgia for the unknown and the imagined ideal. In a time when we were isolated from both the outside world and each other, cottagecore provided the opportunity to vicariously experience nature, to integrate it into our daily routine as self-care and to connect to others doing the same. Crucially cottagecore provides an alternative vision of self-isolation: not repressive and depressing, but rather as a creative outlet, a time to experience the world and to creatively express oneself. It helps us imagine a world where we are not staying in because of a pandemic, but because we want to focus on the self and its creative potential.

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