From Cottagecore to Cottage Country: Escapist Fantasies and Neo-Rural Realities
By Arwen Low
POV: You drizzle honey into the rose-patterned teacup from Grandma’s set as you stare out the window of your warm, sunlit kitchen. Outside, your raspberry bushes glisten from the morning dew. You’ll be making jam today, you think, as you prepare your wicker basket. Unblemished by worry, you step out of your vine-covered cottage into your idyllic world.
Welcome to Cottagecore, the trend that’s been dominating internet aesthetic subcultures these past few months. Cottagecore roots itself in values of self-sufficiency and sustainability, promoting an idealized, peaceful, pastoral lifestyle, and encouraging small-scale agricultural practices, home-sewn clothes, and all things “wholesome”. While Cottagecore first gained its name on Tumblr in 2018, a Google Trends search reveals that it only entered public lexicon around March of 2020, with a massive spike in interest in November. Gen-Zers largely dominate this aesthetic: in fact, 65.7% of surveyed Dawson students said that they either actively participated in or liked Cottagecore.
Nostalgia for a “simpler” time is certainly a part of the appeal of Cottagecore. Our generation was showing concerningly poor mental health even before COVID-19. Now, 7 in 10 zoomers have expressed symptoms of depression during the pandemic, according to an October 2020 study from the American Psychological Association.
And why wouldn’t we? Online school is stressful and tiring, we’re isolated from everyone, Jeff Bezos is still getting richer, and it seems like some extremely important forest is always on fire! But in the quick snap-shots of Cottagecore on TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest, life is easy. We can bake bread, wear frilly dresses, and connect with the land, in a time when the toxic fruits of the Industrial Revolution are only beginning to blossom.
Of course, the idyllic past is a fantasy and carries a good amount of baggage worth unpacking. The Cottagecore aesthetic often comes across as an idealization of early colonialism. Should we really be sitting in our beds at 2 a.m. scrolling through our For You Pages and dreaming wistfully of the white, heteronomative settler lifestyle? As one student I surveyed pointed out, we should critique the idea of “reconnecting” with the unceded lands that we occupy.
However, Cottagecore can also be a reclamation. In an interview with Architectural Digest, Noemie Serieux, the founder of the Instagram account @CottagecoreBlackFolk, expressed: “For those of us who don’t see people who look like us [in typical Cottagecore imagery], a little reimagining of these periods as inclusive rather than exclusive is just as important as preserving the complete history. It allows us the opportunity and the creativity to see our ancestors as more than just a victim of their era.” Similarly, Cottagecore allows for members of the LGBT+ community to imagine or manifest the aesthetics of the past in a more inclusive present. Indeed, the aesthetic was largely popularized by queer women and non-binary people.
While it may be among the most prevalent, Cottagecore is hardly the only reverie occupying the minds of Dawson students. 51.4% of surveyed students say that they’ve entertained escapist fantasies over the course of the pandemic. Their daydreams include running around their empty castles alone, chain smoking in Europe, living with monks, and time-travelling. Interestingly, more than half of the students surveyed reported considering alternate lifestyles because of the pandemic, particularly rural living.
In the US, since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 2% increase in moves from densely populated cities like LA and NYC to smaller communities. A century after America’s urban population finally officially outnumbered its rural population, 2020’s small exodus, facilitated by remote work, seems like a reversal.
Self-sustainable cottages, off-grid farms, and homesteading communities have grown through the 2010s -- the real-life embodiments of Cottagecore fantasies (though with significantly more flannel). Snow Lake Keep, in Nova Scotia, is one example of a homesteading community that embodies some of the principles of cottagecore: a self-described “queer inclusive” community, the 6 permanent residents who live there practice sustainability through permaculture and seek to live in harmony with nature.