The internet holds seemingly infinite subcultures- pockets of alternative realities made entirely of images and text, ripe to be traversed by the yearning user. One of those alcoves currently capturing the online imagination is cottagecore, a cozy virtual home many are flocking to in the face of non-virtual woes. Cottagecore celebrates everything pastoral: peasant dresses, baking homemade bread, living somewhere remote, surrounded only by local flora. #Cottagecore on TikTok is full of people harvesting sea salt, creating spells in a jar, harvesting wild mushrooms, and reading outside. It promises a return to the magical worlds of children’s books you might have read growing up: the green and white homestead of Anne of Green Gables, Little Women’s pastel dresses and sisterhood, the letter-writing romance of Jane Austen novels. Search the term on Spotify and you’ll be greeted with scores of playlists with songs from Sufjan Stevens, Hozier, girl in red, and other softly-introspective indie acts. Though Insider reports that the cottagecore subreddit was created back in August 2018, the trend has heavily proliferated over the past year, especially on social media platforms Instagram and TikTok.
But it’s more than just pretty flowers and fluffy farm animals. As cottagecore’s Aesthetic Wiki notes, “much of the conversation around cottagecore, and indeed the force that drives many to attach themselves to the aesthetic, is socio-political in nature.” Inherent to a pastoral lifestyle is a rejection of most things modern, and in the current moment that means everything from the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the cultural minefield of social media to the horrors of geopolitics. Many young people growing up in the information age simply need a breather, and cottagecore is a way out.
On top of the quotidian hang-ups of modern life, the realities of quarantine has given the lifestyle a new layer of resonance. As we spend more time at home, we have more reasons to make it a sanctuary by filling it with plants, and as we raid our pantries, baking homemade country loafs seems practical. Cottagecore romanticizes the home, giving us reasons to find joy in an inescapable situation. It also provides a vision of self-sufficiency that coronavirus has forced many people into, as we refigure our lives to remain fulfilling without other people. If we’re going to live in isolation, we might as well make it fun by pretending to be 19th century subsistence farmers. Cottagecore is also about self-care, a deliberate slowing down of pace, self-soothing through a combination of nature and domesticity- two things that quarantine hasn’t taken away. It prioritizes gentleness and relaxation over productivity and speed, a respite from the cycles of capitalism. Blogger Sofia Giuntoli tells Insider, “I feel like people are now, more than ever, drawn to cottagecore mainly for two reasons, the first one is that we all need to escape from this reality of being caged in our own homes, daydreaming about an ideal life we could have after the crisis is over… the other one is that it idealizes a sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle that in these times of crisis is fundamental for the future of our planet.”
Brands like The Cottagecore and Linennaive have found a way to capitalize on this lifestyle, though, marketing their clothes specifically toward the aesthetic, but established brands like Free People and Reformation have also found success tapping into the trend, peddling muted colors and billowy fabrics. To the uninitiated, the dresses might resemble Mennonite or Amish gear, with their long sleeves and ankle-skimming hemlines, but religious conservatism is far from the mind of their target consumer. Queerness, specifically the woman-loving-woman community, makes up a major undercurrent of cottagecore. Some see it as an aspirational alternative to heteronormative society, an isolated utopia fit for fostering queer love. There’s a notable lack of men in the movement, offering a safe haven from chauvinism and toxic masculinity. However it’s not an escape from gender roles, since it idealizes the kind of labor that has long been associated with women. But to call it a regressive movement would be inaccurate, because of its commitment to celebrate traditional femininity outside the confines of the patriarchy. A far-right offshoot of cottagecore called “Tradwife,” though, does aim to suppress women through the romanticizing of domestic work. Tradwives celebrate a husband-first mentality, eschew feminism, and submit to traditional roles in order to project subservience. Cottagecore subscribers are sure to distance themselves from this offshoot, but the two do often overlap in imagery and aesthetics. But cottagecore itself has also been criticized for upholding colonial traditions of dress and lifestyle and disrespectfully underestimating real farm labor. Ultimately, though, the community’s whole focus is to exist outside of the icky-ness of modern society, therefore actively pushing aside any of these real-world qualms.
Paradoxically, the main way the cottage core community is formed is through social media- a practice antithetical to the pre-technology mood of the lifestyle. So, if there are people living out the cottagecore fantasy in a fully actualized way, away from mainstream society, plugged in only to their biodiverse garden, we’re not going to see it on the internet. What we do see then is a combination of fantasy and reality, photos of hopeful people cultivating moments of peaceful escape amidst their regular 21st century lives. And in our current moment, basking snippets of release might be as much as we can do.