The sun was already westering as she made her way through the woods, holding in one arm a basket with flowers adorning its handle, and which was laden with a colorful assortment of things, the results of her today’s forage into the forest: elderflowers, wood sorrels, red clovers, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and ripe berries black and blue. Along the woodland path she sauntered, humming softly to herself, her footfalls light, her boots making little imprint upon the earth, and around her head of dark curly hair was enwreathed a crown of woven wildflowers. All the forest was aglow with the golden sheen of the setting sun, and the beauty of it gladdened her heart, so that ever and anon she would pause and gaze at everything around her, admiring the play of yellow light among the trees and the birds flitting about in the branches.
After a while she came to the edge of the forest, and through the wide gaps among the trees she espied, a short distance without, a little charming cottage embosomed in a garden and orchard of varicolored flowers and verdure of different sorts: green grasses, fragrant herbs, leafy shrubs, fruit trees, and trailing vines with pastel blossoms draped over the white walls. Between her and the picturesque house a small brook meandered through, murmuring softly as it passed by. Its lush banks were spanned by a small arch bridge that led to a flagged path narrow, well-worn, and winding up to the very door of the cottage.
In the gloaming (for indeed the sun had already set, and in the deepening blue sky stars shone faintly), the white walls of the cottage glimmered softly, and its windows glowed warm and yellow from the light inside. From the chimney a thin wisp of smoke curled into the sky, and she knew that Alice had already begun preparing supper. All at once, the comforting thought of Alice, of a cozy seat before the fire, and of a hearty dinner of freshly baked bread, homemade strawberry jam, redolent herbal tea, and the goods she now carried in her basket filled her mind, and eagerly her feet turned towards home.
What you just read would probably not fail to belong to cottagecore, or at least how I understand cottagecore to be. If you don’t know what cottagecore is, then we’re two peas in a pod. I myself have heard of cottagecore only fairly recently, despite it being apparently a trending topic on social media, in particular on Instagram, TikTok, and Tumblr. I’m not on any of those social media platforms, so maybe that’s why.
But as soon as I caught wind of this modern trend called cottagecore, I decided to do some digging around. I was eager to know what it is, and why has it gotten so popular, in part because my curiosity was piqued, and in part because I wanted to not feel clueless about new things any more than I’ve been doing. Here’s what I found out.
Cottagecore: more than just dresses and décor
Apparently, cottagecore refers to an Internet aesthetic built around a romanticized and idealized interpretation of (Western) agricultural life. Simply put, it’s what you would imagine living in a cottage in the countryside would be like.
So if you’ve recently seen a deluge of Instagram photos or TikTok videos of young people in peasant blouses or prairie dresses taking solo trips through flowery fields or secluded forests; of charming cottages in farmlands or cozy cabins nestled in the woods; of pressed flowers and sourdough bread and embroidered tea doilies; of moss and mushrooms and home gardens; or of other such scenes of pastoral life and bucolic bliss, then you probably already have an inkling of what cottagecore is about.
But evidently, there’s more to cottagecore than flowing floral fashion or traditional country architecture and décor. It’s more than just the visuals; the pictures or videos on social media only tell a part of the whole story. Apparently, cottagecore is a full-fledged lifestyle movement, a subculture in its own right.
For at its heart, cottagecore is a movement celebrating the simplicity, solitude, and serenity of a pastoral life.
It embraces the virtues of self-sufficiency, sustainability, slow living, self-care, social consciousness, and affinity and harmony with nature.
It emphasizes the wholesome purity of being outdoors, the simple pleasures of doing things by hand, the peace and purposefulness of a quiet and unhurried life in a rustic setting, and overall the nostalgia for a bygone era.
It encompasses not only the aesthetics of traditional country fashion, architecture, and décor, but also the utility and functionality of traditional skills and crafts such as foraging, gardening, husbandry, pottery, candlemaking, weaving, sewing, embroidery, baking, and the like.
Cottagecore: the rise of an escapist fantasy
Cottagecore is said to have emerged sometime in 2017, although it was only in 2018 that it got its current name on Tumblr, and it wasn’t until 2019 that it began to gain substantial traction in many online spheres and on social media. However, cottagecore only really took off in early 2020, at the beginning of worldwide pandemic lockdowns, and it only grew from there.
Cottagecore’s sudden rise to fame at a time when much of the world was shuttering economies and shutting down travel was not a coincidence, but rather a consequence. Enduring confinement, people began to yearn to be somewhere other than the cramped space between the four corners of their houses. They longed to be outdoors, to be in nature, to feel the warm sunshine and breathe the free air, and to see fields and forests of living green instead of the somber gray of an urban jungle. And to many, particularly those who found themselves in lockdown in cities, the countryside seemed to offer all those, and more.
But it wasn’t just about a change in scenery. With ever increasing costs of living set against stagnating wages, and rapidly dwindling opportunities, for too long there has been a growing unease and disenchantment with modern urban living. While this sentiment has already been simmering long before the COVID-19 was named, the pandemic only made it more pronounced – validated it, even.
The ensuing lockdown and quarantine exposed – and exacerbated – the complication, frustration, depression, restlessness, and horror of urban confinement. Suddenly, cities seemed no more than vast and ugly prison complexes, within which were trapped people who struggled to find meaning and fulfillment amidst the grind and drudgery, even as the days marched into uncertainty and hopelessness.
Under such circumstances, the appeal of cottagecore, with its images of countryside idylls and woodland scenes seemingly lifted straight from a fairy tale, and its themes of rustic simplicity, slow and mindful living, do-it-yourself approach, and sustainable relationship with nature grew exceedingly irresistible. In particular, the homecraft activities tied in with the aesthetic proved a productive and interesting, if not pleasurable, way to pass idle time. And because cottagecore sought to portray solitude as romantic, somehow, it made the loneliness under lockdown more tolerable – agreeable, even. It wasn’t long then, before cottagecore became the ultimate escapist fantasy.
Cottagecore: from fashion, fiction, to folklore
But unable to physically escape quarantine, most people took to social media to play out their cottagecore fantasy, flocking to posts, pages, and people tied in with the cottagecore aesthetic. In Tumblr, for instance, the hashtag #cottagecore saw a 153% increase in usage, while the number of likes for cottagecore-related posts surged by over 500%.
Meanwhile, the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which allowed players to build a deserted island into a thriving community through gathering and crafting items, catching fish and insects, and growing virtual gardens, became a huge sensation.
Cottagecore fashion, often typified by lengthy and layered or light and flowing dresses (peasant, prairie, midi, milkmaid, etc.), as well as gingham clothes and denim overalls, among other clothing, became in demand. Likewise, the many forms of homecraft grew popular as more and more people took up gardening, baking, jam-making, sewing, quilting, cross-stitching, embroidery, and even pressing flowers and writing letters by hand.
Moreover, literature that were now being seen as embodying the elements and manifestations of cottagecore, such as the books of Helen Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit, etc.), Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book series, to name but a few, saw renewed interest. Movies and TV shows that were tied in to the aesthetic received increased attention as well.
But what further spurred the rise of cottagecore was the release of Taylor Swift’s sister albums folklore and evermore. Both albums (the first more so than the second) were widely seen as embracing the very essences of cottagecore, from the raw, rustic, and natural aesthetic featured on the cover artworks and music videos, to the nostalgic and escapist theme intimated in the song lyrics. And at the endorsement of such a massively popular figure, cottagecore left the backwaters (funnily enough) and fully entered the mainstream.
Cottagecore in the days of yore
Though cottagecore is undoubtedly a modern phenomenon, its underlying theme of portraying country life and the countryside as idyllic in contrast to urbanized settings is deeply rooted in history. So much so, in fact, that it almost seems that whenever and wherever humans thought of building and inhabiting cities, so too did they think of abandoning them and taking to the countryside.
It was from the Ancient Greeks that the concept of Arcadia – a bucolic paradise of untainted wilderness – was conceived. Arcadia was a historical region of Ancient Greece, mountainous, wild, and inhabited only sparsely by shepherds and herdsmen. It was initially deemed as a harsh and savage place, but as the confusion and complication of urban living slowly weighed upon the Greeks, they began to regard Arcadia – or at least an idealized version of it – as a paradise.
The Sicilian poet Theocritus (c. 300 BC – 260 BC), credited as the inventor of Ancient Greek pastoral poetry, is said to have written his poems for the educated urban class of Alexandria seeking respite from the filth, disease, and crowding of the city.
Among the Ancient Romans, pastoral escapism was also featured in a number of famed literary works. Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC), in a poem, sought to win the love of a woman named Delia by convincing her that he was willing to live a humble and quiet life as a farmer, instead of warring and adventuring as other Roman men, so as not to be parted from her side.
Two of the three major works of Virgil (c. 70 BC – 19 BC), one of Rome’s greatest poets, embodied pastoral tropes. The Eclogues is a collection of 10 pastoral poems modeled after Theocritus poetry, hence its other name as the Bucolics, and these featured largely idealized depictions of the pastoral world and the lives of shepherds. The Georgics, on the other hand, contains much insight into the traditional agricultural life of Italy, as well as practical instruction concerning agricultural activities such as farming, animal husbandry, and even beekeeping.
The Imperial Roman-era novel Daphnis and Chloe, written by the Greek Longus and regarded as the first pastoral prose romance, describes the pastoral world and life in an idealized and stylized manner.
During the Renaissance, the pastoral convention was embodied in the literature of the Italians Dante, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio; the French Pierre de Ronsard; and the Spanish Garcilaso de la Vega.
In Elizabethan England, too, bucolic escapism was a literary theme taken up in earnest both in poem and prose, as exemplified in the creations of Sir Philip Sidney (Arcadia), Thomas Lodge (Rosalynde), Shakespeare (As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale), Christopher Marlowe (The Passionate Shepherd to His Love), etc., and was continued in subsequent years.
In the United States, the poet, essayist, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) is known to have written that he could not preserve his ‘health and spirits’ unless he spent a minimum of four hours a day ‘sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements’. His most renowned work, Walden, a reflection upon simple living and self-sufficiency in natural surroundings, is at times cited as a ‘report of an experiment in transcendental pastoralism’.
Beyond literature, the concept of cottagecore can also be linked to other fields, as in the Arts and Crafts movement, the 19th century international trend that sought to promote traditional style and craftsmanship – specifically medieval, romantic, and folk – in art, architecture, and design. To some extent, cottagecore is also related to the political and social philosophy of agrarianism, and to the larger back-to-the-land movement.
But perhaps the most notable enthusiast of cottagecore, or at least some historical antecedent of it, is Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793), the last queen of France. She had a replica of a ‘hamlet’ built for her, the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet), a ‘fantasy-like’ but fully functional ‘rustic’ retreat encompassing a meadowland, an artificial lake, and a number of residential and agricultural buildings (farm, mill, dairy, etc.), each decorated with its own gardens and orchards. It was here that the Queen, along with her intimates and attendants, would seek respite from courtly affairs and intrigue, clad only in simple and ‘informal’ clothing imitative of the French peasantry at the time. However, whether or not they actually did play as milkmaids, as some sources say, is arguable.
But though the Queen’s ‘rustic’ estate was remarkable, it was only one, and by no means the largest and grandest, of many such hameaus that the French nobles had had built for their pleasure then, for at that time, a growing affinity for nature and the ‘simple’ life, albeit highly idealized, was sweeping through the French aristocracy, and it became their wont to ‘cosplay’ as shepherds and shepherdesses every now and then.
Cottagecore: a pastel paradox?
While many forms of aspirational nostalgia for country life and the countryside have existed several hundred years prior to the rise of cottagecore, it is the first to take place on the digital world. Indeed, it is this glaring irony that critics of the aesthetic have seized upon: that for all its emphasis on rural sceneries and traditional simplicity, cottagecore is primarily staged on the Internet, on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and TikTok, mostly by young and social media savvy urbanites.
But that is not the only thing seen as ironic about cottagecore. Many have also pointed out the stark differences between the rosy, picture-perfect images of the countryside and of country life that cottagecore seeks to portray, and the actual realities of such an environment and of a life lived there. Some have accused cottagecore of deliberately ignoring the dangers of remote and rural settings, as well as intentionally excluding elements that though are deemed unsavory, are nevertheless inherent and inseparable characteristics of the rural world. Some have also criticized the movement for seemingly underestimating and trivializing the hard work necessary to sustain a life in such a setting.
Others have also blamed cottagecore for inadvertently glorifying ‘settler colonialism and frontier living’ and the robbery and seizure of indigenous land.
Another apparent incongruity about cottagecore is that the vast majority of its proponents and participants are women and people of the LGBTQ+ community, two demographics who would have faced many forms of oppression and suppression in the times (or places) they are now romanticizing.
And still another controversy about cottagecore is that while it is deemed by many as a reactionary movement against capitalism, it has now been unfortunately highly commercialized, with numerous brands and businesses cashing in on the movement. Indeed, some have pointed out that for all its insistence on simplicity, cottagecore is being played out as a costly lifestyle requiring costly investments all for the sake of appearances, with ‘peasant dresses’, ironically, now retailing for a king’s ransom.
Amidst all these criticisms levied upon cottagecore, critics have suggested that perhaps cottagecore isn’t actually about moving to the countryside and living out the country lifestyle, but only about looking the part, as well as experiencing the feeling of wistfulness, of longing for a bygone era, through digital images and videos. It has been likened to historical nostalgia, when people long for a time in which they didn’t actually live, all in the belief that ‘life was better back then’, even though such a belief is itself largely founded upon idealized or even imaginary depictions of the past.
Cottagecore: a modern adaptation of tradition
Yet for all its celebration of tradition and longing for the past, it is important to note that cottagecore isn’t about a full and faithful re-enactment of history. Adherents of cottagecore would certainly not abandon their current life, with all its modern amenities and creature comforts, for a traditional one.
Instead, cottagecore is a modern adaptation of tradition. It builds upon the positive aspects of old-world country life and living, such as the idyllic landscapes and the simpler and slower-paced rustic lifestyle, but stops short of embracing the narrow-mindedness and regressive values that are wont to run riot in rural backwaters and especially in the days of yore. Cottagecore relies on tradition solely for its aesthetics; at its heart, it is a completely modern concept, and as such espouses and embodies modern and progressive values and issues.
In fact, despite the timeline and setting of cottagecore being historically hegemonized by heterosexual people, it was actually the LGBTQ+ community who popularized the subculture, and they did so for deep-rooted reasons. Some see it as a way to reclaim the pleasant and positive aspects of their childhood in rural areas, disentangled and completely separated from the homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of stigma, discrimination, and abuse they endured while growing up. Others see cottagecore as a rejection of heteronormativity and gender conformity, a chance to engage in – or escape from – roles that were traditionally dictated by gender binary, a place and platform where they can express their identity freely.
And while it is true that the appearance, the visuals, of cottagecore are drawn almost entirely from elements of traditional white Western pastoral culture and heritage, the movement is swiftly becoming more inclusive, with an increasing number of people of color, in particular black folks, joining in. Many followers of the cottagecore are also involved in social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter.
Moreover, cottagecore as a (supposed) backlash against the overwhelming pace of urbanization and the convolution of urban living is regarded as a chance to step back and away from the chaos of the city, to slow down, practice self-care, and lead a quiet, mindful, and meaningful life.
Similarly, cottagecore as a (supposed) response against capitalism emphasizes the values and virtues of handcrafts, do-it-yourself and make-do-and-mend approach, self-sufficiency, and thriftiness, all in stark contrast to binge buying and consumerism.
The rise and development of cottagecore is also being credited to the growing sense of environmentalism, as more and more people worldwide recognize the importance of sustainability in the midst of rapid environmental degradation and the climate crisis.
In the end, it’s important to understand that cottagecore is taking place in the present. It’s not a relic from the past, but a concept very much alive as its human proponents and practitioners, a fluid state of mind able to be reshaped and redefined as needed, constantly evolving and growing. It’s not about trying to bring back history. It’s about re-imagining the future.